$6.5 Million Awarded in Wrongful Death Suit of Antonio Valenzuela

The family of a man who died while held in a chokehold by a Las Cruces police officer will receive 6.5 million dollars in a settlement from the city.

Antonio Valenzuela was killed on February 29, 2020 after former Las Cruces Police Officer Christopher Smelser placed him in a vascular neck restraint in the aftermath of a traffic stop.

The Sun-News reported on the resolution of the civil suit over the death after receiving documents detailing the terms of the agreement.

The settlement includes the city’s promise to bring policy change proposals before Las Cruces city council.  Valenzuela’s estate wants a ban on all forms of neck restraints and chokeholds. They are also asking for more police training on de-escalation policies and racial bias training.

In a press release, Sam Bregman, an Albuquerque attorney representing Valenzuela’s estate, said “The family knows nothing will bring Antonio back, but they appreciate the city making an effort to change its policies to provide better policing.”

The settlement comes after a long path to justice for the family of Antonio “Tony” Valenzuela. In February, Valenzuela had fled on foot during a traffic stop after officers found he had active warrants for his arrest.  At some point, former officer Christopher Smelser placed Valenzuela in a chokehold, ending his life.

In June, Valenzuela’s death was ruled a homicide. An autopsy showed his injuries were consistent with strangulation. His Adam’s apple was crushed, he had swelling in the brain, fractured ribs and damaged blood vessels in his eyes.

On June 4, Smelser was relieved of his duties and two days later he formally parted ways with the department.

Smelser was initially charged with involuntary manslaughter, but after pressure from the community, Valenzuela’s family and Attorney Sam Bregman, and the story of another man who was injured by Smelser, the Attorney General’s office increased the charge to second-degree murder. Former officer Smelser now faces a preliminary hearing on the upgraded charge.

Attorney Sam Bregman, in a press release, also commented that the monetary compensation his clients received was substantial, surmising it would be “cost-prohibitive” for LCPD to be involved in future wrongful death lawsuits.

Lee McFarland

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