DA’s Office, Police Protest Assertions that led to Mistrial.

DA’s Office, Police Protest Assertions that led to Mistrial.

Las Cruces police and the Third Judicial District Attorney’s Office are protesting assertions raised during a recent court case that evidence was not provided to the defense team in a timely manner and that a knife photographed at the scene of a murder belonged to the victim.

The assertions were made during the first day of trial in the case of David Chavez who is accused of shooting and killing 30-year-old Mitchell Russell on Jan. 6, 2023, on Lees Drive. Chavez was charged with voluntary manslaughter and tampering with evidence.

The trial abruptly ended Aug. 14, on its first day, when a District Court judge dismissed the charges with prejudice. In the order, the judge indicated that prosecutors and police failed to disclose evidence to the defense team in a timely manner.

“While we respect the court’s order of dismissal, our respect does not preclude disagreement,” said Third Judicial District Attorney Gerald M. Byers. “The Third Judicial District Attorney’s Office and the Las Cruces Police Department are investigating available legal remedies in proceeding with charges in this case.

“The officers involved did their due diligence in attempting to save a life.”

The key piece of evidence in dispute was a black folding knife that can be seen in an evidentiary video from the scene of Russell’s death. Chavez’s defense team pointed to it as proof of a self-defense case.

Body-worn video from the first officer to arrive at the scene clearly shows that the knife, inscribed with the text “Las Cruces Police Department,” belonged to the officer. The officer removed the knife from his vest and used it to remove Russell’s clothing to provide life-saving measures. The officer then placed the knife on the ground while he tried saving Russell’s life. Unfortunately, those life-saving measures were ineffective.

The Deputy Medical Field Investigator’s report was disclosed to the defense team on April 6, 2023. The report describes the black folding knife and indicates it belonged to the first-arriving LCPD officer.

The Third Judicial District Attorney’s Office has confirmed that the body-worn video and other evidence was shared with the defense team on Jan. 17, 2023, less than two weeks after the incident.

Officers did find a folding knife in the victim’s pocket, but it was clearly not open and not used during the altercation with Chavez.

It is common practice during an investigation to leave equipment, such as a knife or gear used by first responders, on the scene so it can be properly photographed and documented.

For context, LCPD Det. Pierce Wilber was not the primary investigator on the case and did not respond to the scene of the crime. The detective merely took over the case after the lead investigator was forced to undergo a medical procedure.

The Third Judicial District Court’s order, dated Aug. 14, says, “The court determined that the state did not act in bad faith.”

“I have the utmost faith in Detective Pierce Wilber and the entire Criminal Investigation Section,” said Las Cruces Police Department Interim Chief Jeremy Story. “Our detective did nothing wrong in this case, and our officers tried to render life-saving measures that, unfortunately, were unsuccessful.

 “It’s our hope that a legal remedy can be found to proceed with trial and that justice can be served for the family of Mitchell Russell.”