— District Judge George P. Eichwald sealed seven pre-trial motions in the case of Levi Chavez, a former Albuquerque Police Department officer who’s accused of murdering is wife. After the decision on Monday, April 22, those motions and all related documents about what will be allowed as evidence during the trial won’t be public.
Chavez’ lawyer David Serna argued more media attention on the much-covered case could influence possible jurors.
Tera Cordova Chavez died in 2007, and her death was initially considered a suicide. A civil lawsuit was filed against APD and the city, alleging she had been killed and her husband’s fellow officers tampered with evidence. The City of Albuquerque settled its portion of that lawsuit in 2011 for $230,000.
Levi Chavez was indicted on criminal murder charges in the case in 2011. Since then, APD has come under scrutiny from the federal Department of Justice.
Gwyneth Doland, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, says there is sometimes a desire to protect a defendant who has gotten a lot of publicity. But higher courts have found—in the Enron scandal, for example—that even when members of a jury have heard a lot about a case, it doesn’t necessarily prejudice them. “The fact of the matter is that I am absolutely certain that you can find enough jurors who don’t know all the details of this case and don’t care. Our issue here really is that there is a weighty public interest in how this case is dealt with.” That can’t be discarded, she adds, because of the rare possibility that news stories about the coming trial will influence the jury.
UPDATE Wednesday, April 24, 7 a.m.:
District Attorney Lemuel Martinez says Eichwald’s ruling is a difficult one to deal with. He says his office argued that it was in the best interest of the victim’s family members to allow them access to those motions without ordering them not to speak to anyone about it. “Victims have as many rights as defendants, and their rights should be enforced as well as the defendant’s.”
A small percentage of high profile cases ask for and receive a change of venue, as this one has, Martinez says, and an even smaller percentage is given a gag order. “There’s no reason to single this one out relative to what’s happened in other cases.”
Levi Chavez’ attorney, David Serna, declined to comment for this story.