Officer Christopher Smelser was charged with involuntary manslaughter for allegedly killing Antonio Valenzuela

By Christine Pelisek
June 10, 2020 03:59 PM
Christopher Smelser
Credit: Las Cruces Police Department

A New Mexico police officer was charged last week with involuntary manslaughter for allegedly killing a man using a neck restraint apprehension tactic.

In video obtained by KOB, Las Cruces Police Department officer Christopher Smelser can be heard saying, "I'm going to (expletive) choke you out," as Antonio Valenzuela is heard gasping for air. Valenzuela, 40, died at the scene.

In a press release, Third Judicial District Attorney Mark D’Antonio said Smelser used a vascular neck restraint technique on Valenzuela, which caused his death.

The Feb. 29 incident occurred after a traffic stop, when police learned Valenzuela had an open warrant for a parole violation. Valenzuela took off on foot from the vehicle and was chased by officers. Officers used a Taser twice on Valenzuela.

“Valenzuela was continually struggling to get away, once on the ground, during this struggle, Officer Smelser applied a vascular neck restraint technique to gain control,” according to D’Antonio’s statement.

According to NBC News, Valenzuela’s cause of death was “asphyxia injuries due to physical restraint."

On June 5, after the coroner findings were released, Smelser, who had been working with the department since March 2016, was terminated from the department.

“Words are insufficient to bring comfort to Antonio Valenzuela’s family, but I extend my sincere condolences for their loss,” Las Cruces Police Chief Patrick Gallagher said in a statement.

Gallagher said the department prohibited the use of the apprehension tactic immediately after the death of Valenzuela.

Sam Bregman, an attorney for Valenzuela’s family, said he is “extremely disappointed” with the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter.

“Antonio was murdered,” he tells PEOPLE. “It is not justice for Antonio. The charge should have been second degree murder. Instead of facing 18 months, he should be facing 15 years. My client was running away. He never threatened the police officers, he never brandished a weapon, he never said anything to them. This was just gratuitous violence on the part of this police officer.”

In a statement obtained by PEOPLE,  Smelser’s attorneys Amy L. Orlando and Susana Macias Muñoz said the former officer used a "maneuver that was sanctioned by the Las Cruces Police Department during a violent struggle while attempting to take Mr. Valenzuela into custody."

"What is happening in our nation surrounding the protests and riots is a serious issue, however, the facts of the incident in Minnesota that triggered the public’s outcry are vastly different than the facts in our case at hand," they said referring to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died May 25 in police custody.

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The attorneys said Smelser "received training on the maneuver during his academy and received mandatory re-fresher training and utilized the maneuver in accordance with the policies of the Las Cruces Police Department. Office Smelser regrets the outcome of the incident however, Mr. Valenzuela had a felony warrant, ran from the police, was under the influence of drugs, had drugs on his person, had a weapon, actively resisted, and violently fought the officers."

Officers attempted to use other techniques to apprehend Valenzuela, including the taser, but failed.

"Mr. Valenzuela continued to fight and kept trying to get his hand into his pocket, where a weapon was found," according to the lawyer's statement.

The technique, they said, was "applied as a last resort."