De­fense: Denny’s stran­gling prompted by man’s bel­liger­ence

Lawyers for 42-year-old ac­cused of fa­tal choke­hold in Crosby say he didn’t ini­ti­ate al­ter­ca­tion

Houston Chronicle - - CITY | STATE - brian.rogers@chron.com twit­ter.com/bri­an­jrogers

A Hous­ton fa­ther was in­tox­i­cated and tried to start a latenight fight with an­other pa­tron at a Crosby diner be­fore the con­fronta­tion that ended his life, de­fense lawyers told a Har­ris County jury Wed­nes­day.

John Her­nan­dez, 24, who died after a fight the night be­fore Memo­rial Day last year, shoved and then punched Terry Thomp­son, the hus­band of a for­mer county deputy, lawyers said. Her­nan­dez was the ag­gres­sor who ini­ti­ated the strug­gle that ended his life, ac­cord­ing to lawyers for Terry Thomp­son, the 42-yearold hus­band of ex-Har­ris County Sher­iff’s Deputy Chauna Thomp­son.

Wed­nes­day was the first day of tes­ti­mony in Terry Thomp­son’s mur­der trial and in­cluded open­ing state­ments from both sides and ac­counts from a coroner, an EMT at the scene and a crime scene in­ves­ti­ga­tor. Chauna Thomp­son also is charged with mur­der for help­ing hold Her­nan­dez down, and her trial is set for a later date.

The open­ing state­ments to the jury by Thomp­son’s de­fense at­tor­neys of­fered the first new de­tails of a fa­tal en­counter that gar­nered na­tional head­lines.

“John Her­nan­dez balls up his fist and smacks him in the eye,” de­fense at­tor­ney Scot Court­ney told jurors dur­ing open­ing state­ments. “His re­sponse was his ‘fa­tal mis­take.’”

Court­ney was coun­ter­ing a prose­cu­tor’s ear­lier ar­gu­ment that Her­nan­dez’s “fa­tal mis­take”

was go­ing out­side of the Denny’s to uri­nate, after tak­ing his com­mon-law wife and 4-year-old daugh­ter to the pop­u­lar res­tau­rant after 11 p.m. on May 28, 2017.

The case led to in­ter­na­tional attention after protests broke out, fol­low­ing the publication of a cell­phone video that showed Terry Thomp­son strad­dling Her­nan­dez and ad­min­is­ter­ing what ap­peared to be a choke­hold.

‘Tiger by the tail’

The video, 53 sec­onds long, is a glimpse into the 15-minute con­fronta­tion be­tween the two men, who did not know each other be­fore ar­riv­ing at Denny’s. Both were with their fam­i­lies at the res­tau­rant for a late-night meal. Chauna Thomp­son, who ar­rived at the res­tau­rant after the al­ter­ca­tion be­gan, later gave Her­nan­dez chest com­pres­sions after telling her hus­band to get off the younger man be­cause he had stopped breath­ing.

Lawyers for Terry Thomp­son ar­gued that he was try­ing to sub­due a man who punched him after uri­nat­ing in the park­ing lot in front of his daugh­ter and two other teenage girls. Court­ney said that deputies called to the scene in­ter­viewed wit­nesses and then brought charges against Her­nan­dez for al­legedly as­sault­ing Thomp­son.

“He had a tiger by the tail,” Court­ney told jurors, ex­plain­ing that Terry Thomp­son was try­ing to de­tain Her­nan­dez un­til po­lice ar­rived. “He’s got a guy he thinks is dan­ger­ous be­cause he’s as­saulted him.”

The de­fense at­tor­ney painted Her­nan­dez as a bel­liger­ent and in­tox­i­cated pa­tron who had, min­utes ear­lier, tried to start a fight with a dif­fer­ent pa­tron and threat­ened to re­trieve a gun from his ve­hi­cle. He said sur­veil­lance video from Denny’s and a 911 call from that pa­tron would show Her­nan­dez was look­ing for a fight.

Ear­lier, Har­ris County As­sis­tant District At­tor­ney Jules John­son told the jury Her­nan­dez was try­ing to get back in­side the res­tau­rant when Thomp­son blocked his way. Thomp­son held Her­nan­dez in a choke hold, John­son said, after throw­ing him to the ground.

“He con­tin­ued to hold this choke­hold un­til it is con­firmed that Mr. Her­nan­dez was no longer breath­ing,” John­son said.

Her­nan­dez died in a lo­cal hospi­tal days after the con­fronta­tion, after be­ing re­moved from life sup­port.

Pos­si­ble life term

A med­i­cal ex­am­iner, Dr. Morna Gon­soulin, tes­ti­fied that Her­nan­dez had abra­sions on his throat, burst blood ves­sels in his eyes and other signs in­di­cat­ing he was choked to death.

Prose­cu­tors and the de­fense have sparred over whether Her­nan­dez was in a choke­hold or a dif­fer­ent hold that would not have killed him if he had sub­mit­ted.

An emer­gency med­i­cal tech­ni­cian, Ron Perezne­gron, told jurors that Her­nan­dez was un­re­spon­sive when he ar­rived at the scene and his pupils did not re­act when Perezne­gron looked at them with a flash­light. He said that meant Her­nan­dez likely had no brain ac­tiv­ity.

Be­fore tes­ti­mony be­gan early Wed­nes­day, Her­nan­dez’s sister, Jas­mine Her­nan­dez, was hope­ful the trial would swing in the fam­ily’s fa­vor.

“We’re very op­ti­mistic that there will be jus­tice, but we have to wait,” she said, sur­rounded by about 10 fam­ily mem­bers. Some of them wore white T-shirts with the hash­tag #Jus­ticeForJohn.

Her­nan­dez’s friends and fam­ily say Terry Thomp­son used train­ing as a mixed mar­tial artist to choke Her­nan­dez while his wife egged him on.

“We hope at the end of the day we get the res­o­lu­tion the fam­ily deserves,” FIEL Ex­ec­u­tive Direc­tor Ce­sar Espinosa said be­fore tes­ti­mony be­gan. “The fam­ily will never get John back.”

District Judge Kelli John­son is pre­sid­ing over the mur­der trial, which is ex­pected to last more than a week. If con­victed, Thomp­son faces the pos­si­bil­ity of life in prison.

Melissa Phillip / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Terry Thomp­son, ac­cused of fa­tally chok­ing John Her­nan­dez, lis­tens to tes­ti­mony dur­ing the first day of his trial Wed­nes­day. He and his wife, Chauna, a for­mer Har­ris County Sher­iff's deputy, are charged with mur­der in Her­nan­dez’s death.

Melissa Phillip / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Prose­cu­tor Jules John­son told the jury Terry Thomp­son blocked John Her­nan­dez from re-en­ter­ing the Denny’s res­tau­rant be­fore throw­ing him to the ground and plac­ing him in a choke­hold.

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