July 18 (UPI) — New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas announced this week that his office has taken over the prosecution of a former Las Cruces police officer accused of killing a man in his custody, and has increased the charges.
Last month Christopher Smelser was charged with manslaughter in connection with the February death of Antonio Valenzuela.
In a press release issued Thursday, Balderas said he has increased the charge to second-degree murder, which means murder without premeditation.
In June the Las Cruces Police Department said that on Feb. 29 Smelser “utilized a vascular neck restraint technique” — that is, a choke hold — on Valenzuela after a traffic stop.
“We are taking over prosecution and focusing on appropriate charges for violent and dangerous chokeholds,” Balderas said. “Clearly this was a case where the officer even told him he was going to do it. He called his shot. He said, ‘I’m going to choke you out,’ and then he does and then he lets him lie there to die. This is an officer who should obviously be prosecuted for murder and we’re glad that he is,” attorney Sam Bregman, who represents Valenzuela’s family, told KRQE.
Smelser’s attorneys have criticized the upgraded charge as a political maneuver.
“You don’t get to change the rules halfway in the game. You don’t get to say, ‘You get trained on how to use this maneuver to make sure you capture a felon, but tomorrow, you’re going to be charged with a crime,'” said Amy Orlando of the Justice Legal Team.