BERNALILLO, N.M. (AP) — The murder trial of a former Albuquerque police officer charged with killing his wife drew to a close Friday as prosecutors portrayed the defendant as a philandering, slick and cold-blooded killer and defense lawyers called him an innocent man and victim of a “made-up story.”
Jurors will decide which scenario they believe after a monthlong trial that focused on the salacious details of love triangles and workplace romances, allegations of a botched investigation and charges that fellow Albuquerque Police Department officers who came to the scene in neighboring Los Lunas flushed key evidence down the toilet.
Assistant District Attorney Bryan McKay laid out the alleged murder scenario during his closing argument Friday morning, saying Chavez, 32, committed “cold-blooded, calculated, planned-out murder” when he killed Tera Chavez, 26, in 2007.
McKay asserts he went to her house after he finished his shift, found her asleep in her bed, shoved his department-issued gun in her mouth and pulled the trigger. Then Levi Chavez showered and went to spend the night with a girlfriend, McKay said.
“This was not some heat of passion, an argument,” McKay said. “He thinks he has committed the perfect murder.”
Defense attorney David Serna, however, painted the picture of a hurt, sad and suicidal woman who took her own life because of her volatile marriage and a crumbling affair. And he argued his client has been a victim of an overly aggressive detective and media stories filled with “packs of lies.”
He said prosecutors “have been able to cobble together a semi-believable, made-up story,” emphasizing that Levi Chavez was investigated by a number of law enforcement agencies and it still took four years to indict him. Now prosecutors are using that information to try to make a suicide look like a homicide, he said.
Serna spent much of the three hours allotted him questioning assertions made by prosecutors and their witnesses, emphasizing the jury’s need to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt for a conviction.
“There is no evidence that Levi was even in the same county as Tera Chavez” the night she died, he said.
He detailed Chavez’s cooperation and lack of attorney throughout the initial investigation, pointed to what he said was “obvious agony and torture” on the 911 call after Levi Chavez reported finding his wife’s body the following night and his willingness to take the stand in his own defense.
“Is that what an innocent man does?” he asked “… Any reasonable doubt yet?
Prosecutors have said the couple had a volatile marriage and Tera Chavez was telling friends her husband had committed insurance fraud by staging the theft of their truck.
Serna pointed to testimony from one of Tera Chavez’s best friends that she was sad that an affair she was having with the husband of the woman who had been her maid of honor was crumbling, and she had been hoping to spend the weekend with Levi Chavez while their children were camping.
But McKay, showing pictures of the couple’s children, said if Tera Chavez killed herself because her husband wasn’t coming home, the “next people coming home are them (the children).”
“That’s who’s going to find her,” he said. “Does that make any sense? ”
The now former officer took the stand in his own defense on Wednesday, acknowledging having a string of mistresses, searching a website on how to kill someone with martial arts moves and ignoring his wife’s calls for help. But the disgraced former officer denied that he killed his wife.
He said their string of breakups began when he was just 16 and Tera was 15 and pregnant with their first child.
He also testified that his wife called him 176 times on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2007, but he ignored the calls and turned off his cellphone before going to spend the night with fellow officer Debra Romero. The next day, he said he became worried when the calls stopped and his mother told him his wife had called in sick.
The defense suffered an apparent setback last week when a crime scene expert testifying in his defense failed to pull off a demonstration of how the officer’s wife might have been able to kill herself with his gun.
There was a bullet in the gun’s chamber when it was found next to Tera Chavez’s body, and there were questions raised about whether the gun’s magazine was still seated inside the weapon. Prosecutors contend it would have been impossible for the woman to press the button to release the magazine after shooting herself.
McKay contends Levi Chavez hit the button in his “adrenaline rush.”
“This is not a suicide,” he said. “It doesn’t add up. This is murder.”