Levi Chavez acquitted of killing wife

........................................................................................................................................................................................

His chest out, his shoulders back, Levi Chavez strode briskly away from the state district courthouse Wednesday a free man.

"I'm not surprised," the 32-year-old former Albuquerque police officer told a throng of reporters from behind a pair of sunglasses. "I'm not guilty. I'm innocent. I told you guys that from the beginning."

Minutes earlier, at 4:35 p.m., state District Judge George P. Eichwald took two verdict forms from his bailiff and read the news to a packed courtroom: "We, the jury, find the defendant, Levi Chavez, not guilty of first-degree murder."

It was the official end to a long-running courtroom drama that captivated New Mexicans and drew national attention. Some national media called Chavez "Casanova Cop" due to his many mistresses, a key factor in his defense that his wife committed suicide because she was depressed over his serial affairs.

Reaction in the courtroom Tuesday reflected the gravity of the moment and the nearly six years since Chavez learned that he was under investigation for his wife's death.

Levi Chavez did the sign of the cross, then shared an intense hug with his attorney, David Serna.

Friends and members of his family gasped audibly, began to weep, embraced each other and said: "Thank Jesus" as Eichwald read the same verdict — "not guilty" — on a second form, which asked jurors whether they believed Chavez committed evidence tampering.

On the other side of the courtroom, where Tera Chavez's friends and family sat, there were a few tears, too. There also was visible anger, disappointment and exhaustion.

Eichwald instructed Tera's family to leave the courtroom first after the verdict was read and asked the Chavez family to wait a few minutes before departing.

Tera's family left quickly, as the judge was telling Levi Chavez that he was "released of all (his) obligations to this court."

Outside, members of Tera's family declined to comment until, just as he was getting into his car to drive away, Tera's father, Joseph Cordova, answered "no" to a reporter who asked whether the Cordovas were feeling any closure.

Then he added: "Justice was not served" and left with his wife, Theresa Cordova.

A short time later, Levi Chavez walked out of the courthouse surrounded by cameras, reporters and family members. When he arrived at his own car, a reporter asked what he plans to do now.

"I'm going to go to church, pray my rosary and thank my Virgin Mary," he said. "There's a lot of good things coming my way."

In April 2011, a two-count indictment charged that Levi Chavez had shot Tera Chavez, 26, once in the mouth on Oct. 19, 20 or 21, 2007, in the couple's Las Maravillas home and tried to make it look like a suicide.

During closing arguments last week, Senior Trial Attorney Bryan McKay narrowed the state's theory on Tera's death date to some time around 1 a.m. on Oct. 21, 2007.

From the beginning, Levi Chavez and Serna have insisted that Tera Chavez committed suicide at the peak of her despondency, which had been driven largely by her husband's many extramarital affairs.

All but two of the jurors declined to comment after their verdict was read. Those two said there was not enough evidence to prove the prosecution's case.

Serna had some choice words for reporters in the courthouse parking lot, saying his client had a "healthy distrust of the media," who he said had "regurgitated" false allegations about Levi Chavez for years.

Levi Chavez didn't answer when asked whether he will try to get his job back at APD. Serna, asked the same question, said: "I doubt it." Levi Chavez was fired from APD 10 days after his indictment.

Serna said his client was "confident" throughout the trial and during the day and a half jurors were deliberating. He also said Chavez had planned to testify "from day one."

Growing visibly angry, the well-known defense attorney directed his ire at 13th Judicial District Attorney Lemuel Martinez and his staff for trying to make a case out of a "made-up pile of lies" in the first place.

Martinez "lacked the courage to declare that there wasn't sufficient evidence to bring these charges," Serna said. "He has put my client and his family through years and years of misery that never should've been visited upon them."

He accused Martinez of "allowing his political future" to dictate his decision to prosecute Levi Chavez.

There's still a civil wrongful death lawsuit, filed by Tera Chavez's family, to be decided in state District Court in Bernalillo County.

The city of Albuquerque already has paid Tera's family $230,000 to settle claims against itself and APD in the civil case. The money was placed in an account for Tera and Levi Chavez's two children.

That leaves Levi Chavez as the sole defendant in the civil matter, which had been on hold since his indictment to allow the criminal case to reach a conclusion.