Recorded on police body cam video choking a restrained man to death, a former New Mexico police officer was charged Thursday with second-degree murder. Initially charged with manslaughter and fired from the police department, the officer was recently hit with a murder charge after a new prosecutor reviewed the case.
On February 29, Las Cruces police officers pulled over a pickup truck occupied by two women and Antonio Valenzuela. After discovering a warrant for drug charges against Valenzuela, the officers asked him to exit the back of the vehicle.
According to police body cam video, Valenzuela attempted to flee on foot but was shot with Tasers and tackled to the ground. While two of the officers restrained Valenzuela’s hands behind his back, Officer Christopher Smelser placed him in a chokehold.
As Officer Smelser choked out Valenzuela, the cop bragged, “I’m going to fucking choke you out, bro.”
Several minutes later, one of the officers realized that Valenzuela had stopped breathing and no longer had a pulse. Although EMTs later arrived, they were unable to resuscitate Valenzuela.
Valenzuela was pronounced dead at the scene. The coroner determined he died from asphyxial injuries.
Terminated from the police department and initially charged with manslaughter, Smelser was charged with second-degree murder on Thursday after State Attorney General Hector Balderas took over the prosecution of Smelser from the Third Judicial District Attorney’s office in Las Cruces.
“We are taking over prosecution and focusing on appropriate charges for violent and dangerous chokeholds,” Balderas stated.
In rebuttal, Smelser’s attorney Amy L. Orlando told The Associated Press, “Officer Smelser used a technique that was sanctioned by the department. He was trained in the technique. And of a sudden it’s banned after and he’s a criminal.”
Blatantly ignorant of police tactics, Orlando clearly does not appear to know the difference between a carotid restraint and a chokehold. Police departments across the country used to teach carotid restraints to render a suspect unconscious within seconds. Chokeholds, which usually involve pressing the forearm against the victim’s throat, are not sanctioned by any police department, yet officers repeatedly kill suspects by intentionally applying banned chokeholds or failing to correctly apply carotid restraints.
If convicted of second-degree murder, the former police officer could face up to 15 years in prison.