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
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.
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.
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.