LAS CRUCES, New Mexico — The second-degree murder trial for a former Las Cruces police officer charged with in the choking death of a suspect will be delayed from July until January of next year, court records show.
The case against Christopher Smelser stems from the chokehold death of Antonio Valenzuela after he fled from a traffic stop on Feb. 29 of last year.
Valenzuela, 40, had a warrant out for his arrest because of a parole violation and fought with Smelser and other officers who tried to detain him after he fled.
After a chase in which officers were tasing him to no avail, Smelser applied the chokehold to gain control of the struggling suspect. Smelser can be heard on police video saying, “I’m going to (expletive) choke you out, bro.” Valenzuela became unresponsive and died at the scene.
The coroner determined Valenzuela died from asphyxial injuries and that he had methamphetamine in his system, which contributed to his death. His neck had a deep muscle hemorrhage, his Adam’s apple was crushed and his ribs were fractured. There also was swelling in his brain.
Smelser was fired from the Las Cruces Police Department after the autopsy results were released. A police department trainer would later testify at a court hearing that Smelser held Valenzuela in the hold for too long.
Smelser’s attorney has contended the former officer had been trained to use vascular neck restraints and the murder charge was a political move meant to grab headlines. Smelser is currently free on bond pending trial.
Following Valenzuela’s death, Las Cruces police began prohibiting the use of neck restraints during apprehensions.
(The Associated Press contributed background to this report.)