FRI: Ex-New Mexico Officer Facing Murder Charge Over Chokehold, + More

Jul 17, 2020

Ex-New Mexico Officer Facing Murder Charge Over Chokehold - By Russell Contreras, Associated Press

A former police officer in New Mexico has been charged with second-degree murder after authorities say he killed a Latino detainee he had placed in a chokehold.

State Attorney General Hector Balderas said Thursday he has filed the charge against former Las Cruces police Officer Christopher Smelser in the death of Antonio Valenzuela.

Police say Smelser applied the chokehold after a foot chase in February when Valenzuela fled during a traffic stop.

Valenzuela was pronounced dead at the scene. The coroner determined he died from asphyxial injuries.

Smelser was initially charged with manslaughter and later fired.

Smelser's attorney, Amy L. Orlando, did not immediately return a phone message.

The revised charge came as Black Lives Matter protests have swept the nation in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Demonstrators have put pressure on police departments to change policies involving the use of force and interactions with Black, Latino and Native American residents.

The death of Valenzuela generated similar protests in Las Cruces, just 46 miles north of the Mexico border. Family members of Valenzuela had called for an upgraded charge against Smelser.

Some protesters said the killing illustrated the violence some Mexican Americans face from police and compared it to Floyd's killing.

Last month, Balderas called for uniform use of force policies that would be codified in state law to require body cameras and ban chokeholds, among other things.

As chairman of the state Law Enforcement Academy Board, Balderas in 2016 called on a committee of experts to review how each of New Mexico's municipal and county law enforcement agencies investigates the use of deadly force by their own officers.

At the time, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported that the move seemed to offer the prospect of establishing a statewide standard for handling shootings by police.

A report with recommendations was drafted in 2017 but failed to gain traction as many police departments said a year later that they hadn't even received the policy recommendations.

Democrat Luján Has Money Edge In New Mexico's US Senate RaceRussell Contreras, Associated Press

Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján has a nearly 6-to-1 fundraising advantage over his GOP opponent in a race for an open U.S. Senate seat in New Mexico.

Federal records show the Nambé‎ Democrat raised nearly $1 million from mid-May to June 30. He has more than $3.3 million cash on hand going into the general election.

Luján's campaign says it will not accept corporate PAC money.

Meanwhile, Republican Mark Ronchetti reported raising $532,500 during the same time period. The former television weatherman had $571,000 cash on hand.

Ronchetti charged that Luján is receiving campaign donations from residents in California, New York and Oregon while he is focusing on New Mexico residents.

Both are seeking to replace Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, who is retiring.

The latest fundraising numbers come after Luján released his first television campaign ad in his bid for the U.S. Senate.

Hundreds Gather In Albuquerque To Protest COVID-19 Rules Associated Press

Hundreds of people gathered in downtown Albuquerque to protest the governor's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and speak out against what some are calling unfair treatment and an infringement of their rights and freedoms.

KOB-TV reported the Protest for Freedom demonstration Thursday at the Civic Plaza included members of Cowboys for Trump, the New Mexico Civil Guard, business owners and religious leaders. 

Multiple Republican politicians also criticized Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Scott Chandler is running for a seat on the state House of Representatives to represent District 32, which covers Chaves, Eddy and Otero counties. He said Lujan Grisham’s rules allowing dining outside of restaurants but not indoors don’t make sense while railing against “big government.”

The protest was about two hours and remained peaceful.

Albuquerque Public Schools Lays Out Hybrid Learning Plan – Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

The Albuquerque Public Schools board has announced a hybrid learning plan for the upcoming school year where students are expected to begin classes online Aug. 12 and then switch to in-person learning Sept. 8. Teachers and staff are expected to return Aug. 5.

The district plans to provide electronic devices for all K-12 students who need them, and it will supply masks, cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer.

The plan will next head to the state Public Education Department for approval, but it could still change depending on the governor's public health order.

The Albuquerque Journal reported when schools open, the plan is to divide students into two cohorts so they can attend on a rotating schedule.

However, Acting Superintendent Scott Elder said parents are split over the model and they’re concerned about finding childcare.

New Mexico reported another 300 COVID-19 cases Thursday, bringing the total to 16,138.

The increase was led by Bernalillo County with 103 cases and Doña County with 39 cases.

There were also five additional deaths, bringing that total to 562.

New Mexico Sheriff In Obstruction Case Loses Certification - Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

A New Mexico sheriff accused of showing up drunk to a SWAT standoff and trying to order officers away is no longer a licensed law enforcement officer in the state. 

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy Board members voted unanimously Thursday to suspend the certification of Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan. 

A criminal complaint filed in March said Lujan, in plainclothes, attempted to take over the scene involving a barricaded subject in Española. 

The complaint, written by interim Española police Chief Roger Jimenez, said Lujan refused to leave the scene despite commands from officers. The complaint also says he smelled like alcohol and appeared to have trouble keeping his balance.

Authorities say Lujan initially refused to comply with the arrest and was taken from his office in handcuffs by Española police officers and Taos County deputies. 

Court records show Lujan has been charged with resisting, evading or obstructing an officer, a felony.

Lujan did not return a phone message. 

Michael Vigil Takes Oath As New Mexico Chief JusticeAssociated Press

Justice Michael Vigil has taken over as New Mexico's top judge.

Vigil was sworn in for a two-year-term as chief justice on Wednesday after he was selected by his colleagues on the five-member New Mexico Supreme Court.

The chief justice presides over Supreme Court hearings and is the top administrative officer for the New Mexico judiciary, including personnel and budgets.

He says in a statement that his first priority is to work on keeping courts open during the COVID-19 pandemic while keeping courthouse staff and visitors healthy.

Vigil joined the high court in 2018 after 15 years as a judge of the state Court of Appeals. Vigil graduated from Santa Fe High School, the College of Santa Fe and Georgetown University Law Center.

He takes over as chief justice from Judith Nakamura, who remains on the court but plans to retire later this year.

Massive Illegal Dump Discovered In Southeastern New Mexico - Associated Press 

State officials say they discovered a massive illegal dumping site in southeastern New Mexico while cleaning up a former limestone mining pit. 

The small plot of state trust land near Eunice hasn't been leased since the 1970s. 

Workers who were disposing of mine waste and reseeding the area found tons of trash and tires that likely had been buried there for decades. 

The New Mexico State Land Office says the additional work to clean up the dump bumped up the price tag for the project by $45,000. 

The office is seeking an environmental assessment and whoever is responsible for the illegal dumping.

Navajo Leader Urges Residents To Stay Home Ahead Of Lockdown - Associated Press 

Residents of the Navajo Nation are being encouraged to refrain from traveling ahead of a weekend lockdown meant to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. 

Tribal President Jonathan Nez cited surges in cases off the reservation in making the request.

He says the tribe has to keep its guard up. 

It reported 79 new cases of the coronavirus Thursday on the reservation, bringing the total number of people infected to 8,486. 

More than 6,200 people have recovered. 

The tribe also reported two additional deaths, which brings the toll to 407. 

The lockdown on the Navajo Nation is scheduled to begin around sundown Friday and end early Monday. The tribe also has daily, nighttime curfews. Residents on the reservation are required to wear masks. 

Arizona COVID-19 Patients Being Sent To New Mexico Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

People who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Arizona are being transferred to New Mexico hospitals because of staffing shortages and a lack of bed space, under a federal law that requires hospitals to accept patients from neighboring states if beds are available.

The Albuquerque Journal reported that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the transfer of out-of-state patients poses challenges as some New Mexico facilities are at or nearing capacity levels.

New Mexico has fewer hospital beds per capita than many other states, she said. Lujan Grisham also suggested that the state would not reject such patients under the law, even if it could.

The University of New Mexico Hospital and Presbyterian Healthcare Services have accepted Arizona patients for treatment, including 96 patients from the Navajo Nation. It is unclear how many Arizona patients have been transferred to New Mexico.

The New Mexico Department of Health has confirmed the transfer of patients. But the department said the number of patients is not large enough to affect New Mexico's ability to provide for its own residents.

The number of occupied ICU beds at seven designated New Mexico hospitals this week was at 256, below the maximum capacity of 614 beds, according to department data.

However, two Presbyterian hospitals are near capacity and have activated their disaster plans, but not because of COVID-19, said Clay Holderman, Presbyterian's chief operating officer. Those patients have a range of other ailments that have been worsened by a lack of preventive care.

Ex-New Mexico Governor Says Americans Not Released From Venezuela - Associated Press

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson says he met with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro but was unable to win the release of several Americans jailed in the South American nation. 

Richardson said in a statement that he met with Maduro on Thursday after also talking with the president by phone and meeting three times with Maduro's chief spokesman. 

Richardson says several relatives of Americans held in Venezuela had contacted him, prompting the trip. Richardson says he and Maduro talked about the potential release of American prisoners as well as coronavirus humanitarian issues. 

Richardson made the trip as a private humanitarian mission that was coordinated with the U.S. government.