Judge orders pretrial motions in Levi Chavez murder case sealed

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The public won’t be privy to any more information in advance of the highly anticipated murder trial for former Albuquerque Police Department officer Levi Chavez, who is accused of killing his wife in the couple’s (Las Maravillas) home in 2007 and trying to make it look like a suicide.

That’s because state District Judge George P. Eichwald granted a motion this morning from Chavez’s defense attorney, David Serna, to seal all pretrial motions in the case so that Chavez “can receive a fair trial.”

Jury selection is set to begin in the case on June 3, and Eichwald’s ruling means that, before that date, the public will not be able to see a series of filings related to whether certain evidence should be admitted at trial.

Serna’s rationale, with which Eichwald apparently agreed, was that there already has been intense media scrutiny of the case, and additional coverage of what he called “wild theories inherited by the state” would “further taint” the potential jury pool.

Eichwald already had agreed to move the case from Valencia County to Sandoval County after Serna filed a motion saying that potential jurors in Los Lunas had been “poisoned” against his client. Serna hinted in court today that he may request yet another change of venue at some point.

In arguing against Serna’s motion, prosecutor Brian McKay of the Thirteenth Judicial District Attorney’s Office said that the jury selection process is specifically designed to cull those who already have formed opinions about a given case from the panel. McKay and Serna have been working to complete a special juror questionnaire that will be mailed to as many as 350 Sandoval County residents in the coming weeks.

“Just because the information getting out there could potentially taint (a jury pool) down the road is not reason enough to seal,” McKay said. “That is the point of voire dire.”

Moreover, McKay argued, much of the information Eichwald now has ordered sealed already is in the public record.

The family of Tera Chavez filed a civil wrongful death lawsuit against Levi Chavez and the city of Albuquerque. The file in the civil case is voluminous, and it contains several theories for why the former APD officer allegedly killed his wife. Chief among them involves a truck owned by Levi Chavez, which Tera Chavez reported stolen to the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office just weeks before her death.

According to several people on McKay’s witness list — many of whom also were deposed in the civil case — Levi Chavez and his “cop buddies” had in fact staged the theft of the truck in order to collect insurance money. Tera Chavez, according to those witnesses, had second thoughts, tried to report the alleged fraud to state investigators and told several friends and family members that “if anything happens to me, Levi did it.”

Serna said in court today that none of those allegations is likely to be admitted at trial.

“The state wanted to put all this information from the civil wrongful death lawsuit out there so that Mr. Chavez could be tried in the media,” he said.

Eichwald granted Serna’s motion. He also accused the DA’s Office of “calling the media” in advance of every hearing in the case. The judge said he “didn’t have time” to put a notice of today’s hearing in the court file. He also accused McKay of “trying to set up a suppression hearing.”

McKay denied calling reporters before hearings and said he wasn’t trying to set up a suppression hearing.