Levi Chavez testifies about relationship

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Attorney David Serna stunned a packed courtroom Wednesday morning with the following words: “The defense calls Levi Chavez.”

In his first public statements since “I’m innocent your honor; I plead not guilty” in April 2011, the former Albuquerque police officer began his testimony by explaining the history of his relationship with Tera Cordova, who in 2000 became Tera Chavez when she married Levi.

Prosecutors allege that Levi shot Tera once through the mouth in the couple’s home in October 2007 with his APD-issued pistol and tried to stage her death scene in the couple’s home near Los Lunas to look like a suicide.

The defense claims Tera killed herself.

Levi Chavez took a step toward bolstering his defense Wednesday when he testified that Tera had threatened to harm herself “countless times,” beginning in the early part of the 2000s when the couple was living in Virginia.

“I just never believed her,” he said. “I just never believed her.”

Chavez also refuted testimony from earlier in the trial given by Rose Slama, one of the many women with whom he had extramarital affairs.

He said he never told Slama that he had been in the shower when he heard a bang, then found Tera dead.

And Chavez said Slama never told him that she had heard from Tera that Levi’s truck hasn’t really been stolen.

According to prosecutors, Levi killed Tera in part to keep her from telling authorities that he and others had staged the theft of the couple’s truck in order to collect insurance money.

In addressing his many affairs, Chavez said: “I’m very embarrassed about it. I’m not proud of that,” then grabbed a handkerchief and put his head in his hand.

The State District courtroom was at capacity Wednesday morning when the former Albuquerque police officer took the witness stand in his own defense and, for the first time since the trial began June 10, people were turned away from sitting inside.

Chavez was indicted by a Valencia County grand jury in April 2011 on charges of first-degree murder and evidence tampering.

Prosecutors allege he killed his 26-year-old wife, Tera, with his APD-issued Glock 9-mm pistol in the couple’s home near Los Lunas on either Oct. 19, 20 or 21, 2007 and then tried to make her death look like a suicide.

Tuesday, the defense called its own forensic pathologist to pick apart photographs from Tera Chavez’s death scene and her autopsy report.

Dr. Charles Wetli said he believes Tera died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the mouth.

Wetli testified that he has twice been hired to determine whether Tera killed herself: once by the city of Albuquerque in a civil wrongful death lawsuit and again by Levi Chavez’s criminal attorney. He did not discuss his fees, and prosecutors didn’t ask on cross-examination how much he’d been paid.

Wetli testified that he would’ve expected to see significant injuries around Tera’s mouth had her husband shoved the pistol in and pulled the trigger, as the state alleges.

Instead, there were only eighth-of-an-inch tears at the corners of Tera’s mouth, which would’ve been consistent with injuries sustained as a result of the intra-oral gunshot wound, Wetli said, pointing to an autopsy report prepared by the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator.

Wetli said he believes Tera turned the gun upside down and used her thumb to shoot herself. That matched the opinion of the defense crime scene reconstruction expert, Larry McCann, who testified last week.

He also said on direct examination by Serna that he would’ve expected to see some broken teeth.

Assistant District Attorney Anne Keener pressed Wetli on the matter of Tera’s teeth during cross examination.

She showed him a crime scene photograph that appears to show one of Tera’s lower teeth possibly chipped and asked Wetli whether he thought that’s what the photo shows.

“I can’t really say … It’s possible,” he answered, adding that he would’ve expected to see detailed notes in the autopsy report about any teeth that weren’t damaged by the gunshot itself, which he did not.

Her questioning then moved to one of the most contentious matters of the entire trial: whether the Glock’s magazine was disengaged from the butt of the pistol when Valencia County sheriff’s detectives found the gun lying beside Tera’s body.

Earlier testimony from prosecution that the magazine, which holds bullets for the gun, was disengaged, and that Tera couldn’t have disengaged it after shooting herself because she died instantly.

Keener asked Wetli whether he was aware that McCann tried to demonstrate in court last week that it’s possible to pull the Glock’s trigger and release the magazine in one motion — an experiment that failed multiple times.