LAS CRUCES, N.M. – Prosecutors on Thursday upgraded charges against a former Las Cruces police officer accused of killing a Latino detainee whom he had placed in a chokehold earlier this year.
Authorities initially charged former Officer Christopher Smelser with involuntary manslaughter in the Feb. 29 death of 40-year-old Antonio Valenzuela, the Las Cruces Sun News reported. On Thursday, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas announced he had increased the charge to second-degree murder after taking over prosecution of the case.
Authorities said Smelser placed Valenzuela in a chokehold after a brief foot chase following a traffic stop earlier this year. 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 coroner determined he died from asphyxial injuries.
In a statement released Thursday, Balderas said prosecutors were “focusing on appropriate charges for violent and dangerous chokeholds.” In an interview with The Associated Press, Smelser’s attorney, Amy L. Orlando, suggested that the upgraded charge was a political move meant to grab headlines.
“Officer Smelser used a technique that was sanctioned by the department,” Orlando told the AP. “He was trained in the technique. And (all) of a sudden it’s banned after and he’s a criminal.”
Las Cruces police said they banned officers from using vascular neck restraints like the one that killed Valenzuela immediately after the 40-year-old’s death.
Police placed Smelser on administrative leave in February and relieved him of duty last month after a medical investigator determined that Valenzuela’s death was a homicide. Smelser had been with the Las Cruces Police Department since March 2016.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.