Levi Chavez to be tried in Sandoval


District Court Judge George P. Eichwald granted a motion to hold the trial of ex-Albuquerque Police Officer Levi Chavez in Sandoval County on Wednesday.

Eichwald granted the motion to change the venue from Valencia County to Sandoval County following a claim that Chavez could not receive a fair trial due to intense media coverage.

Chavez is accused of killing his wife, Tera Chavez, with his department-issued service weapon in their Las Maravillas home in 2007. Prosecutors claim Chavez tried to make the death look like a suicide.

Chavez's attorney, David C. Serna, filed the motion in August, saying Chavez would not get a fair trial since he claims a Los Lunas trial setting would "reach a fevered pitch" from publicity and media attention.

The motion, which is 574 pages, lists stories from several media outlets, including the Albuquerque Journal and Valencia County News-Bulletin, says "the inhabitants of (Valencia County) are prejudiced against the defendant due to public excitement" over the matter. It goes on to say that the current media attention is "sufficient to show a reasonable apprehension" that the defendant will not secure a fair and impartial trial.

On Wednesday, Serna pointed to multiple stories from local media outlets that he said garnered almost 9,500 views on different websites as of three months ago.

According to Serna, one of those accounts was from an editorial that called Chavez "a rogue cop."

"This is why it's important to move this case out of Los Lunas," Serna said. "… Nothing could be worse than allowing this trial to take place in Valencia County."

In another example, Serna made reference to a portion of an August 2008 News-Bulletin article he says is inaccurate. The excerpt says, "Levi Chavez opened a $100,000 life insurance policy on his wife a little more than two weeks before her death with coverage that includes suicide, according to the lawsuit."

"The 'according to the lawsuit' part got them out of libel and slander," Serna said. "But this is not true and something that is perpetuated by the media."

Serna said pretrial publicity has been "fiercely negative" and "prejudicial" towards his client. He said incorrect information gets repeated in different news accounts.

He said Tera Chavez's father, Joseph, has made negative comments about Chavez and "his cop buddies" at the Albuquerque Police Department.

The New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator originally ruled Chavez's wife's death a suicide, but after a request from the Valencia County Sheriff's Office, the ruling was changed to undetermined.

By contrast, Internet searches of the Rio Rancho Observer, the Sandoval Sign Post and the Sandoval County News returned no results when searching for the case, the motion claims.

Assistant District Attorney Bryan McKay agreed that the media coverage has been "exhaustive," but that most of the media attention comes from the Albuquerque area.

He disputed Serna's assertion that misinformation repeatedly keeps getting published in news accounts.

"Obviously, we disagree that most of the information out there is incorrect," McKay said.

He said eight stories by the News-Bulletin on the subject wasn't overwhelming over the past several years. He said the court should look at other potential venues, such as Farmington, Clovis, Hobbs and Roswell.

McKay said Valencia County residents have heard "bits and pieces" of the case. He said the fact that the Cordova family lives in Valencia County and that media outlets cover the case isn't enough to change the venue.

"Because the (Cordova) family lives here and the (media coverage) is saturated in this area, it isn't going to work?" McKay asked. "It just doesn't compute."

Prosecutors have said Chavez killed his wife to keep her from being a witness in the case involving the couple's alleged stolen truck, which Chavez claimed was taken a month before she died.

In September 2007, Tera reportedly told friends Chavez had taken the truck and made it look like a theft, according to a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Tera's parents.

Eichwald told the attorneys that a questionnaire of potential jurors from Sandoval County must be completed by mid-March. He said the trial date would not be pushed back.

The judge said he would call other courts around the state as a backup plan in case any problems arise with the Sandoval County location.

The trial is scheduled for June 11, 2013.

-- Email the author at bruffner@news-bulletin.com.