Charge Against New Mexico Officer Upgraded to Murder

Officer Christopher Smelser
Christopher Smelser


Death of Antonio Valenzuela

In February of this year, two Las Cruces officers made a traffic stop. A male passenger in the vehicle, Antonio Valenzuela, had a felony warrant for parole violation and later was discovered to have methamphetamines in his possesion. Valenzuela willingly steps out of the vehicle but it’s done with the obvious intent to run. He does and a chase ensues. Once caught, Valenzuela continues fighting with the officers. Officer Christopher Smelser uses a vascular neck restraint (VNR) technique to knock Valenzuela out. Valenzuela is placed in handcuffs. Medical personnel are called. When they arrive they say Valenzuela is not breathing and begin chest compressions. Valenzuela dies approximately an hour later.

According to the KFOX 14 article, “Valenzuela’s autopsy revealed hemorrhages in his neck muscles and fractured cartilage in his Adam’s apple, according to the medical investigator.” The Medical Examiner ruled the death a homicide and Officer Smelser was charged with manslaughter. The case was taken over by the New Mexico Attorney General and the charge was upgraded to 2nd Degree Murder.

Problems with this Case

Let me be up front right now. I do not agree with this officer being charged with murder or even manslaughter. I know I’m going to catch flack for it but I do on these stories no matter which way I go. I don’t care. I care about trying to be as fair as possible. The vascular neck restraint was an accepted and taught technique by the Las Cruces Police Department. Even now, you can go online and find all kinds of information that says it’s harmless, which I do not agree with. That aside, it was something they trained their officers to do. This officer had ever right to believe the training they gave him was acceptable.

I watched multiple videos of the incident and don’t see an aggressive individual. I see an officer trying to subdue a suspect. I don’t see someone laughing and joking about knocking someone out. I see a man who is trying to ensure proper procedure while fighting the adrenalin rush from being in a fight. But worst of all regarding the charge, the choke hold technique he used was banned AFTER the death of Valenzuela. It was an accepted technique at the time of this incident.

People seem to be making a big deal about Officer Smelser telling Valenzuela that he will choke him out. This is no different from an officer saying stop or I’ll shoot. It’s how they are said that matters. You can hear when someone is being super aggressive when making comments like that. I did not hear that in Smelser’s voice. I did hear him say multiple times, “give up, bro,” and again, those comments were not said in an aggressive tone.

Who’s at Fault?

Antonio Valenzuela is still dead when he shouldn’t be. I don’t care that he ran. I don’t care that he had a warrant out on him. I don’t care that he had drugs. Those are not death penalty offenses (and even death penalty offenses are not tried in the streets). That being the case, someone is at fault. In my opinion, the fault lies with the Las Cruces Police Department.

One article I read while researching VNR said it has been safely used in martial arts for a long time. That may be but martial arts fighters are experts. They train constantly. Not only do they train on the correct way to do the hold but they also train in how to avoid getting hurt with the hold. Officers go to a training class for however long but after that how much practice do they get? If you use a restraint that affects something as delicate as the neck area then you need to be damn sure the people using it are experts who are constantly practicing, not people who just passed a class. The injuries suffered by Valenzuela tell me that Officer Smelser did not perform the hold properly. That’s a training issue, which is on the agency.

It’s sort of like when deputies with the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office shot and killed 6-year old Kameron Prescott. I don’t blame the officers but I do blame the Sheriff’s Office. The deputies had obviously not been trained to have any concern beyond the suspect. They acted like any bullets that missed the suspect just vanished in a puff of smoke. That’s a training issue. It wasn’t the officers being malicious. No one thinks they wanted to kill a child but that is what ended up happening.

More Reasons Why the Fault Lies with the Agencies

Officers are obviously not being trained properly. In the George Floyd case the officers make the assumption that if a person can speak, they can breathe. That’s not true. I’m not going into why here, it’s too involved. Google it. A similar misunderstanding of what is happening occurs in the Valenzuela case. First of all, unconscious is NOT the same as being asleep. They are two different things. There should not be snoring when a person is unconscious. Snoring is an indication of a blocked airway. At the 12:50 mark in the video below, Officer Smelser asks the other officer to check Valenzuela’s pulse. The officer says, “he snored right now.”

Both officers seem to think this is a sign that Valenzuela is all right. He’s snoring so he must be asleep. Everything’s good. That’s not what is happening. Valenzuela is suffocating due to his injuries but these officers have obviously not been taught the difference between unconscious and asleep or the implications of what snoring can mean when someone is unconscious. It wasn’t a lack of caring. Smelser wants Valenzuela checked on. It was a lack of knowledge of what was really happening. Again, a training issue.

There are a lot of super aggressive officers out there who not only think it’s all right to assault people but who actually want to assault individuals. But we can’t let the bad actors color our vision of all officers. Each case has to be viewed separately. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that is what happened with Officer Smelser. I believe he is being scapegoated to appease the angry public. That’s wrong. As long as no new information comes out to change what we currently know, I hope he beats the charge.


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