New Mexico (NBC) (06/10/20)— Body camera footage obtained Sunday shows a New Mexico police officer telling a man he’s going to “choke you out” before allegedly causing his death with what authorities described as a “vascular neck restraint.”
The officer, Christopher Smelser, was charged Friday with involuntary manslaughter in the Feb. 29 death of Antonio Valenzuela. On the same day, the Las Cruces Police Department filed a letter of intent to fire Smelser.
In a statement, chief Patrick Gallagher cited the conclusions of an autopsy report, which he received on June 4 and which listed Valenzuela’s cause of death as “asphyxia injuries due to physical restraint,” according to documents obtained by NBC News. Gallagher added that the department immediately prohibited the use of the vascular neck restraint.
Methamphetamines found in Valenzuela’s system also “significantly” contributed to his death, the autopsy says.
A spokeswoman for the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator, which conducted the autopsy in Valenzuela’s death, said that death investigations typically take six to 10 weeks or more.
In a statement, the office of the Third Judicial District Attorney said that Valenzuela’s death occurred after a traffic stop. Valenzuela was wanted for a parole violation and ran from officers, the statement said.
Officers used a stun gun twice that did not affect Valenzuela, the statement says. During a struggle that followed, Smelser used a neck restrain to gain control of him, the statement says.
In video footage obtained by NBC affiliate KOB, Smelser can be heard telling Valenzuela, “I’m going to f*** choke you out, bro.” Valenzuela can be heard gasping for breath.
A lawyer for Valenzuela’s family, Sam Bregman, told reporters Tuesday that Valenzuela didn’t attack Smelser, brandish a weapon or threaten him.
“He was running away,” he said. “There was absolutely no justification to choke him, and certainly nothing to justify killing him.”
In a statement to NBC News, Smelser’s lawyer, Amy Orlando, said Smelser “regrets” Valenzuela’s death, but said he was “actively resisting,” had a weapon and “violently fought” officers.
Orlando did not say what kind of weapon Valenzuela had, but added that it was found in a pocket that he was reaching for.
Orlando said that Smelser told Valenzuela he was going to use the neck restraint, which she described as a “last resort.”
“What is happening in our nation surrounding the protests and riots is a serious issue,” she said. “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.”
The statement was a reference to the death of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes. In cell phone video of the incident, Floyd can be heard telling the officers, “I can’t breathe.” His May 25 death touched off nationwide protests over police violence and systemic racism.
Four officers have been charged in Floyd’s death, including Derek Chauvin, the officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck. He is charged with second-degree murder and other crimes.
Bregman said that Valenzuela’s family believes that Smelser should face second-degree murder charges as well.
“This police officer literally said, ‘I’m going to choke you out, bro,’” he said. “That is not involuntary manslaughter. That is second-degree manslaughter.”
A spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, Roxanne Garcia-McElmell, declined to comment. “We need to maintain the integrity of the fair trial process,” she said.
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