The two and a half year nightmare endured by former LCPD Officer Chris Smelser and his family is over. Justice has prevailed in a case where criminal charges never should have been filed because they were based on groundless accusations that ultimately cost Chris not only his job and reputation, but destroyed any future career opportunities in his chosen profession of law enforcement. And all of this damage, every single bit of it, was done to him by self-serving political hacks looking to make a name for themselves or trying to cover their collective asses as they rode the anti-police wave that swept this country in 2020.
From former LCPD Chief Patrick Gallagher, to former District Attorney Mark D'Antonio, to former Chief Deputy District Attorney Gerald Byers (now DA Byers), to Attorney General Hector Balderas, and even the Las Cruces City Council, all of them used the power of their respective offices to effect termination, criminal charges or financial settlement in which the totality of the evidence was ignored. Arresting a cop and charging him with manslaughter, and later 2nd degree murder, and paying an unjustified and unwarranted sum of money to the family of a criminal became more important than a review of the facts.
Patrick Gallagher was hired as police chief from NYPD, a department that banned vascular neck restraints in 1993. Yet, in 2018 in his first year as chief he approved the teaching of VNR to LCPD officers at a time when many departments nationwide had abandoned VNR because it was killing people. LCPD was the only department in the state endorsing VNR. Why? Great question that no one seems to have an answer to.
Mark D'Antonio was District Attorney in 2020 when his Chief Deputy District Attorney, Gerald Byers, filed involuntary manslaughter charges against Chris. Those charges came at the conclusion of the OMI investigation into the death of Antonio Valenzuela. The autopsy listed methamphetamine as a significant contributing factor in Valenzuela's death, but that evidence was disregarded. Byers had even told certain members of the task force investigating the matter that it appeared Chris had acted within the scope of his duties. Then Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd in Minnesota and twelve days later Chris Smelser finds himself facing a manslaughter charge. Why? Great question that no one seems to have an answer to.
Barely a month after Byers filed the manslaughter charge it was mysteriously dropped and New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas announced his office was taking over the case. No explanation from the DAs office was given. I served 22 years in LCPD and never saw the state take a homicide case away from a local DA. So why did it happen? Great question that no one seems to have an answer to.
Just weeks later, in August 2020, the Las Cruces City Council in office at that time used its power to award the Valenzuela family $6.5 million of Las Cruces taxpayers monies. No civil trial, no arbitration. The implication was simple enough to understand: We, the council, find Chris Smelser guilty and we are paying out. Again, I was with LCPD for 22 years and never saw a case settled in that fashion. There was always a cooling off period of a couple of years, an opportunity to fall back and regroup and let a law firm that had experience in high profile, high-dollar cases review the evidence. So why did council do that? Great question that no one seems to have an answer to.
What everyone involved in the prosecution of Chris Smelser ignored was the evidence. Antonio Valenzuela had 5,000mg of methamphetamine in his system when he died. The pathologist who examined him said during the preliminary hearing that she had performed autopsies on people who overdosed on meth with far less amounts of that drug in their systems than Valenzuela had in his. She stated in the prelim, and the actual murder trial, that she could not conclude that it was the VNR that killed Valenzuela. She testified that high levels of meth make the body demand more oxygen and the cause of death was asphyxia with meth a significant contributing factor. (Asphyxia does not mean that Valenzuela was choked out, it simply means he did not have enough oxygen. In other words, large amounts of meth in his system made it unwise for him to engage in rigorous physical activity such as sprinting and fighting). So why were criminal charges against Chris Smelser even pursued? Great answer that no one seems to have an answer to.
In the 1980s, in two separate incidents and on nights that I was working patrol, two individuals in LCPD custody died in police cars after fighting with officers. Both had massive amounts of cocaine in their systems. No cops ever got charged with a crime.
In the case of Chris Smelser, it took a judge with a backbone and a set of balls, who was unafraid to call this case what it was, political horseshit, to end his unwarranted persecution. District Court Judge Doug Driggers, a former DA himself and the senior judge on the bench for the 3rd Judicial District, dismissed the 2nd degree murder charge against Chris in a directed verdict. In layman's terms that means the AGs office failed to prove its case with regards to the elements of 2nd degree murder. Chris walked out of the courthouse a free man and can never be charged again.
Hats off to his defense team, particularly Amy Orlando and Mark Pickett, for the fantastic work they did in defending him. It is a terrible shame that an innocent man and his family had to endure baseless accusations promoted by politicians who referred to themselves as defenders of justice. Instead of heeding the report of the pathologist they decided to go the political route, hoping to sway a jury with emotion instead of fact. In other words, they played God. They didn't care what the findings of the medical doctor were, they were hellbent on trying to convince a jury that the VNR alone killed Valenzuela. They failed.
The criminal side of this case is done but there is some unfinished business.
In other words, it's payback time.
The civil lawsuit is coming and I'm curious to see if the city will settle as quickly with an employee they wronged as they did with the family of a thug who had a history of drug use and felonious behavior who ran from, and fought with, police officers. There is a new city manager and some newly elected councilors, and hopefully they will do the right thing.
The paragraphs above that ended with "great question that no one seems to have an answer to" were phrased in that manner for a reason. There are so many unanswered questions regarding this case and I would love to see those responsible for the persecution of Chris Smelser held accountable. That probably is not going to happen but I did want to make the reader, especially those who may not have followed the trial closely, aware of how wrongly Chris was treated in the hopes that it never happens to another LCPD officer.