This article has been updated throughout with details from Friday’s preliminary hearing.
LAS CRUCES, NM (KTSM) — Former Las Cruces police officer Christopher Smelser will stand trial and face second-degree murder charges in the death of Antonio Valenzuela.
After the second day of a preliminary hearing, Third Judicial District Judge Casey Fitch ruled that there was probable cause to charge Smelser with second-degree murder in Valenzuela’s death. Fitch was acting as the magistrate court judge in this matter.
“This is a very close case. It is a very important case. It is one that I have agonized over,” Fitch said. “It is one, that as a human being, that is a difficult one to confront. We are at the preliminary stage of the case.”
Smelser allegedly killed Valenzuela on Feb. 29 while restraining him following a foot chase and struggle. According to the Las Cruces Police Department, Smelser used a vascular neck restraint, which has been prohibited by the department.
On Day 2 of the hearing, State of New Mexico forensic pathologist Dr. Lauren Dvorscak testified over the phone Friday morning that Valenzuela’s death was caused by asphyxial injuries from restraint.
Dvorscak also added that methamphetamine in Valenzuela’s system increased the risk of death.
“The methamphetamine itself did not cause the asphyxial injuries of the neck, but in the setting of asphyxial injuries to the neck, it certainly can contribute to increased oxygen demand by the body and with the compression of the neck lowering potential oxygen to the brain,” said Dvorscak.
Dvorscak determined the cause of death of Valenzuela, which she ruled a homicide. “In this case, I’m using the medical definition of homicide, which is essentially death at the hands of another,” she said.
She was asked if she was familiar with vascular neck restraint, which she said she was familiar with it as a chokehold.
“This injury just indicates to me that there was significant compression on the neck to cause the injury,” Dvorsak.
Law enforcement expert Damon Fay also testified Friday. When asked if the use of a chokehold was reasonable, he said it was not.
“The application of use of force in this matter was an armbar choke,” Fay said. “It is inappropriate; it was at the deadly force end of the scale, it was not called for and not sanctioned by any police pepartment of the training in New Mexico.”
On Thursday, Las Cruces Police Department Lieutenant Shane Brisco testified. Brisco is a training officer who has taught the vascular neck restraint.
Andrew Tuton, the officer who was with Smelser during the chase and when Valenzuela was restrained, also testified in the hearing.