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Judge rules former Las Cruces officer will stand trial for murder in chokehold death

UPDATE: A judge has ordered ex-Las Cruces police officer Christopher Smelser to stand trial for murder following a two-day preliminary hearing after which the judge found probable cause to believe a crime was committed.

Bond for Smelser was set at $50,000.

ORIGINAL REPORT: LAS CRUCES, New Mexico -- A preliminary court hearing for a former Las Cruces police officer charged with second-degree murder for a death allegedly stemming from the use of a chokehold continued for a second day on Friday.

Christopher Smelser is charged in the killing of Antonio Valenzuela on Feb. 29. A variety of witnesses were testifying as the prosecution mapped out its evidence for a magistrate court judge to determine if there's probable cause to take the murder case to trial.

State Attorney General Hector Balderas' office is handling the prosecution. He took over the case from the local district attorney and upgraded what was initially a manslaughter charge against Smelser to a murder count.

Authorities said Smelser applied the chokehold after a foot chase when Valenzuela fled during a traffic stop.

After the chase, Smelser can be heard on police video saying, “I’m going to (expletive) choke you out, bro.”

Valenzuela was pronounced dead at the scene. The state medical investigator later determined he died from asphyxial injuries.

After those findings were completed, Smelser was fired by the Las Cruces Police Department and criminal charges were filed against him.

Smelser’s attorney, Amy Orlando, has called the murder charge politically motivated and maintains her client utilized a vascular neck restraint - not a chokehold, and did nothing wrong.

“Officer Smelser used a technique that was sanctioned by the (police) department. He was trained in the technique,” Orlando has said.

But Las Cruces police Lt. Shane Brisco, a departmental training officer, rejected Orlando's contention under questioning during day one of the hearing on Thursday.

"The facts clearly support that it was not a vascular neck restraint," Brisco said, referring to both the video and statements Smelser reportedly made to state police investigators.

The charges against Smelser came in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which triggered demonstrations across the nation calling on police departments to change policies involving the use of force and interactions with Black, Latino and Native American residents.

The city of Las Cruces recently paid out $6.5 million to Valenzuela's family to settle a wrongful death civil lawsuit. (The Associated Press contributed background to this report.)

Video from Day 1: Former Las Cruces officer charged with murder didn't use approved restraint, police trainer testifies

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Jim Parker

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