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A Lack Of Journalistic Integrity

Once again, a Las Cruces Sun-News reporter picks and chooses what information he wants the public to know when reporting on the trial of former LCPD Officer Chris Smelser in the death of Antonio Valenzuela. Justin Garcia wrote in his article published on Wednesday, July 13, that one of the testifying officers, Lieutenant Terry (who was a patrol sergeant at the time), had no idea why his two subordinates, Officers Smelser and Tuton, wanted him to pull over a pickup truck at 0230 in the morning. That simply is not true.

First of all, let me write from experience. No patrol officer, especially young officers, are going to tell their sergeant to pull a truck over for no apparent reason. And no sergeant would do that if the officer(s) could not articulate the reason(s) for a stop. But there were reasons and they were good ones. The officers were in the neighborhood on a suspicious circumstances call which included a possible burglary, which Justin Garcia conveniently failed to report in his article. And even in the absence of that, just a few paragraphs down from his proclamation that Terry had no idea why his officers wanted him to pull over a pickup truck at 0230 in the morning, Garcia wrote that Terry testified he pulled the truck over because it had expired plates!

Which is it, Justin? Did then-Sergeant Terry not know why he was pulling a truck over, or did he pull it over because it had expired tags?

Let's give our Sun-News reporter the benefit of the doubt. Everyone in the courtroom is required to wear a face mask due to Covid. Some witnesses are harder to understand than others. But even the old guy writing this, whose hearing has gone to hell in a hand basket, hears well enough to understand a lot of what is being said. And I believe Garcia has not only reported on this case for two and a half years, he has also heard testimony regarding those facts. In fact, Garcia wrote in his article that the testimony of the officers was consistent with previous reports!

But hold on, there is more one-sided reporting from our illustrious Sun-News "journalist."

Garcia wrote in his article that all four officers who testified (Terry, Guaderrama, Ibarra and Tuton) had spoken with Smelser's attorney, former Third Judicial District Attorney Amy Orlando, in the months after the incident in which Valenzuela died. He also wrote that Tuton had been represented by Orlando during an interview he was required to give to a state police officer (I assume he was part of the multi-agency task force investigating the death of Antonio Valenzuela). What Garcia left out of his article was that during the trial, while under direct examination by prosecutor Jones from the AGs office, Tuton was asked in an accusatory manner if he had met with Orlando without the state's knowledge or presence. Tuton admitted that he had.

But there is much more to that testimony, and guess what facts good old Justin again left out of his article? Amy Orlando did represent Tuton during that interview but pro bono, which means at no charge, and Tuton testified to that when Orlando cross-examined him. Did officers involved in the Valenzuela incident meet with Orlando without the state AG being present? Yes, they did. Just as the state interviewed officers, both on the telephone and in person, without Amy Orlando or anyone from the defense team being present. But Justin doesn't report that bit of testimony.

The prosecution was definitely trying to make the jury think that officers were sneaking around giving information to the defense team without the prosecution knowing about it. But they got their asses handed to them when Orlando made it apparent to the jury that in the months following the death of Valenzuela both sides interviewed witnesses without inviting the other side to sit in on it (and they are not required to extend that invitation). But I wouldn't want the Sun-News to report it that way because that would be fair & impartial and completely out of line with controlling the narrative by failing to give all the facts.

Our fearless reporter also left out information regarding the violent struggle that took place between Smelser, Tuton and the suspect Valenzuela, particularly the part where Valenzuela grabbed Tuton's Taser. Tuton won the struggle for the Taser and threw it as far as he could to prevent Valenzuela from using it on him or Smelser. But we don't need the public to know that, do we, Justin? Instead, write some nonsense about how the officers saw Valenzuela reaching into his pocket and feared it could be a gun but it "only" turned out to be a "Leatherman-like pocket knife." That knife was displayed in court and it had two blades on it large enough to kill a person. I would know, I own one. It could definitely be a deadly weapon in the wrong hands.

Justin also pointed out in his article that three officers were "dinged" by LCPD for not rendering aid to Valenzuela immediately after the vascular neck restraint had been applied (he was still breathing and they did put him in a recovery position) but failed to mention that the discipline took place six months after the fact, and one officer testified that he wasn't even interviewed about what occurred. He was just given a notification that he was receiving a disciplinary action of "counseling." Obviously this "discipline" was a knee-jerk reaction, but in 22 years with LCPD I never knew anyone to get any form of discipline without benefit of an interview and a chance to defend themselves.

The sad reality of what I'm writing is that the words "journalism" and "integrity" no longer go together and have not for many years. I was not going to write anything on the Smelser trial until it was over, but this slanted, one-sided bit of reporting compelled me to put this out. That a reporter for a small newspaper feels it necessary to engage in duplicitous activity is pathetic and is a reflection of the substandard principles prevalent in his chosen "profession."


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