Judge seals pretrial motions in Chavez case

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The public won't have access 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 Monday from Chavez's attorney, David Serna, who argued that several pretrial motions in the case should be sealed so Chavez "can receive a fair trial."

Jury selection is set to begin 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 coverage of the case, and additional coverage of what he called "wild theories" stemming from a civil suit against Chavez would "further taint" the potential jury pool.

"All motions filed from now on from the defendant and from the state will be sealed," Eichwald said in court.

Prosecutor Brian McKay of the 13th Judicial District Attorney's Office objected, saying the jury selection process is designed to cull those who already have formed opinions about a given case. 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 days.

"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 voir dire."

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

Chavez is charged with first-degree murder and evidence tampering in connection with the death of his wife, Tera Chavez, who was 26 when she died.

Numerous media, including the News-Bulletin and Albuquerque Journal, have covered the case extensively. Much of that coverage has been related to a civil wrongful death lawsuit against Levi Chavez and the city of Albuquerque by the family of Tera Chavez.

The file in the civil case is voluminous, and it contains several theories on why the former APD officer allegedly killed his wife. Chief among them involves a truck owned by Levi Chavez, which his wife reported stolen to the Valencia County Sheriff's Office just weeks before her death.

Statements made by several people on the prosecution's witness list — many of whom also were deposed in the civil case — alleged that Levi Chavez and his "cop buddies" had staged the theft of the truck 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."

Levi Chavez knew his wife had discussed her concerns about the truck with others, according to prosecutors.

Whether information about the truck will be admissible at trial is a question that still hasn't been determined.

Serna, in an interview Monday, would not discuss specifics of what he wanted shielded from public view in pretrial filings.

"For years now, forces aligned against Levi Chavez have been bandying about all kinds of innuendo, gossip and misinformation," he said, declining to elaborate.

Journal and News-Bulletin attorney Charles Peifer said later Monday that he had not seen Eichwald's order yet, but if it applies to all pretrial motions, such an order would go too far in keeping details from the public.

It would "infringe the public's First Amendment right of access to criminal proceedings because it would conceal from public view future case activity without there being any determination that the sealing serves an overriding interest or is necessary to protect that interest."

Also, he said, "such a blanket sealing order would sidestep the detailed procedures for sealing court records mandated by the New Mexico Supreme Court."

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

Eichwald accused the DA's Office of "calling the media" in advance of every hearing in the case. McKay denied that.