LAS CRUCES, N.M. – Charges against a Las Cruces police officer who is accused of killing a man during a traffic stop in February were increased from involuntary manslaughter to second-degree murder Thursday when New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas announced his office would be taking over the case.
The maximum possible sentence for involuntary manslaughter is 18 months; second-degree murder carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.
Christopher Smelser stands accused of killing Antonio Valenzuela, 40, on February 29 after placing him in a vascular neck restraint. Police video from the incident shows Smelser cursing at Valenzuela and telling him he was going to, "choke you out bro."
“We are taking over prosecution and focusing on appropriate charges for violent and dangerous chokeholds,” Balderas said.
After working with the district attorney to fully review the case, the Office of the Attorney General determined that the evidence warrants a charge of second-degree murder.
In a statement, Third Judicial District Attorney Mark D'Antonio said his office maintains the integrity of the fair trial process in the continuation of efforts to ensure justice is served for the victims and defendants.
Since the incident occurred, D'Antonio said Balderas' office and staff have been in contact with his office regarding the case, as well as with police and law enforcement reforms and accountability for the use of deadly force, including the ban placed on chokehold restraint techniques.
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"In the pursuit for justice and given the seriousness of the charges against Las Cruces Police Officer Smelser, we agreed that this case be adopted and prosecuted by the New Mexico Attorney General," D'Antonio said.
According to the new criminal complaint filed in Third Judicial District Court, Smelser is accused of killing Valenzuela without lawful justification or excuse and without sufficient provocation, sudden quarrel, or in the heat of passion, and the defendant knew that his acts created a strong probability of death or great bodily harm to Antonio Valenzuela, a second-degree felony resulting in the death of a human being.
The complaint states that witness testimony from 15 law enforcement officers from various agencies throughout the area helped spur the decision to increase charges against Smelser. Those officers include:
Doña Ana County Sheriff's Department Sgt. A. Sanchez
DASO Detective L. Louick
New Mexico State University Police Department Detective D. Pedraza
New Mexico State Police Officer W. Mora
NMSP Officer D. Herrera
NMSP Officer F. Hall
NMSP Officer N. Rhoades
NMSP Officer M. Avilucea
NMSP Officer N. Alvarado
NMSP Officer G. Avina
Las Cruces Police Department Sgt. M. Henke
LCPD Officer A. Contreras
LCPD Officer J. Guaderrama
LCPD Officer Brisco
LCPD Officer N. Krause
This article originally appeared on Las Cruces Sun-News: New Mexico police officer facing murder charges in chokehold death