New Mexico judge drops charges against ex-officer accused of killing man in custody

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New Mexico District Court Judge Douglas Driggers ruled there was “insufficient evidence” for the trial of former Las Cruces police officer Christopher Smelser to continue and dismissed the second-degree murder charges filed against him for the death of Antonio Valenzuela in 2020, according to the New Mexico Attorney General’s office.

In February 2020, Smelser allegedly used a vascular neck restraint on Valenzuela during a traffic stop. After Valenzuela’s death, the Las Cruces Police Department banned the use of vascular neck restraints in apprehensions, and the city reached a settlement with Valenzuela’s family.

Amy Orlando, an attorney for Smelser, told CNN Friday her client is relieved, and can “take a giant breath” following the decision.

“He was doing what the was taught and trained by the Las Cruces Police Department and instead of being supported he was charged criminally,” Orlando said. “We think that the judge made the right decision based on the evidence presented to him and the jury. We’ve known for two years that there was insufficient evidence and the judge saw that.”

New Mexico’s Attorney General Hector Balderas said the judge “got it wrong,” in this case.

“The judge got it wrong by not allowing the jury to rule on the evidence of the illegal chokehold,” Balderas said in a statement sent to CNN by his office on Friday.

Balderas said the judge’s decision “essentially acquits Smelser without the opportunity for the empaneled jury of Smelser’s peers to consider the evidence against him.”

“Although these cases are difficult for communities across the country, we will continue to engage and use the jury system to bring justice,” Balderas said.

July 17, 2022 at 03:48AM

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