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Prosecutors: Houston man pinned fellow Denny’s patron for 15 minutes in fatal chokehold

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 6/20/2018 By Brian Rogers

Terry Thompson, accused of fatally choking John Hernandez, left, is shown in court with his attorneys Greg Cagle and Scot Courtney, right, during jury selection on Friday, June 8, 2018 in Houston. Terry and his wife Chauna Thompson, a former Harris County Sheriff's deputy, are charged with murder in the chokehold death of John Hernandez at a local Denny's. ( Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle )

Terry Thompson, accused of fatally choking John Hernandez, left, is shown in court with his attorneys Greg Cagle and Scot Courtney, right, during jury selection on Friday, June 8, 2018 in Houston. Terry and his wife Chauna Thompson, a former Harris County Sheriff's deputy, are charged with murder in the chokehold death of John Hernandez at a local Denny's. ( Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle )
© Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle
Houston railroad worker Terry Thompson held a 24-year-old father in a deadly chokehold for almost 15 minutes as the two struggled outside a popular dinner spot, prosecutors Tuesday reminded jurors deciding his murder trial.

Thompson, 42, is in the fifth day of his trial for last year’s choking death of John Hernandez, who he chastised for urinating in the parking lot of a Denny’s restaurant in front of his teen-aged daughter and her girl friends.

Thompson is married to former Harris County Deputy Sheriff Chauna Thompson, 46, who helped her husband during a late night struggle and has also been charged with murder.

The timeline of the violent struggle, gleaned from eyewitness testimony and audio of 911 calls, is central to the prosecution’s case against Thompson, along with allegations that he pinned John Hernandez to the ground and placed him in a chokehold. Thompson allegedly went a step further and applied the hold, strangling Hernandez during the confrontation at the Crosby-area diner after 11 p.m. on May 28, 2017.

“He was turning purple,” testified Melissa Trammell, a server at Denny’s. Ryan Staiger, a customer who recorded 53 seconds of the fight, testified that he did not see Hernandez turning purple, but was concerned that Thompson could kill Hernandez.

“The smaller person was face down on the concrete,” Staiger told the jury.

“The person on the bottom couldn’t fight back.” It was the first time the jury had seen Staiger’s cell phone video that showed Thompson on top of Hernandez and pinning him face down in the parking lot. The bystander footage was published days after the incident and has fueled repeated protests and international news coverage.

Defense attorney Scot Courtney has maintained that Hernandez, who had a blood alcohol level of more than two times the legal limit to drive, was intoxicated and urinating in the parking lot when Thompson drove up to the restaurant. Thompson called out to Hernandez and requested he use the facilities inside the diner, and their discussion quickly escalated until Hernandez allegedly punched Thompson in the left eye. That punch, Courtney told jurors, led Thompson to take Hernandez to the ground. Different eyewitnesses have said the two men scuffled and wrestled on the ground as Thompson tried to restrain Hernandez until police arrived.

“He continued to hold the chokehold until it was confirmed that Mr. Hernandez is no longer breathing,” prosecutor Jules Johnson told jurors during opening statements. Johnson said Thompson held Hernandez for “upwards of 15 minutes.”

Chauna Thompson arrived after Thompson had Hernandez on the ground and helped hold his arm, eyewitnesses said. Hernandez’s widow testified last week that her husband spent that Sunday before Memorial Day playing soccer with friends then watching soccer before coming home to take her and their 4-year-old daughter to eat dinner. When she realized how intoxicated he was, they went to the Denny’s near their home.

Blake Wise, a Denny’s customer who was leaving as they arrived, testified that he was worried Hernandez was too drunk to drive with a child in the car. As he reached in his truck to get his phone, Wise testified, Hernandez must have thought he was reaching for pistol because he yelled at Wise that he had a gun as well. Hernandez’s widow pulled him away from that altercation, but was inside the restaurant when he went back outside where he encountered Thompson.

The trial, in state District Judge Kelli Johnson’s court, is expected to wrap up this week. If convicted of murder, Thompson faces the possibility of life in prison. Brian Rogers covers Houston crime and courts. You can email him at brian.rogers@chron.com or follow him on Twitter at @brianjrogers.

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