HOUSTON – The husband of a former sheriff's deputy was the aggressor during a deadly confrontation in which he held another man in a chokehold for as long as 15 minutes outside a Houston-area restaurant, a prosecutor told jurors Wednesday.
But a defense attorney for Terry Thompson disputed the claim during opening statements in Thompson's murder trial, saying his client was acting in self-defense and trying only to subdue a man who had attacked him after being confronted about urinating in public.
Thompson and his wife, Chauna Thompson, are both charged in connection with the death last year of 24-year-old John Hernandez. Chauna Thompson was a Harris County sheriff's deputy at the time but was later fired. Her murder trial is scheduled for October.
Prosecutor Jules Johnson told jurors during his opening statement Wednesday that 42-year-old Terry Thompson had the upper hand "within seconds" of the confrontation and quickly placed Hernandez in a chokehold.
Prosecutors say Chauna Thompson, 46, arrived later to help her husband subdue and restrain Hernandez outside a Denny's restaurant in Sheldon in May 2017. She was off-duty at the time.
"He has taken John Hernandez, pulled him over his shoulder and thrown him on his back and he's on top of him and he's striking him," Johnson said, alleging that Thompson kept Hernandez in a chokehold for up to 15 minutes until Hernandez was "no longer breathing."
Defense attorney Scot Courtney argued that Thompson had Hernandez in a "somewhat submissive hold" that was non-strangulating.
"Mr. Thompson had no intention of killing Mr. Hernandez," Courtney said. "The mere fact that it lasted 15 minutes is he was simply trying to subdue somebody that would not submit."
Some witnesses said they pleaded with Terry Thompson to let go of Hernandez but that he refused.
Hernandez died at a hospital three days later. A medical examiner ruled that he died of lack of oxygen to the brain caused by strangulation and chest compression.
Courtney said Hernandez was belligerent and drunk when he drove his young daughter and wife to the restaurant. Courtney said Hernandez threw the first punch and Thompson was simply defending himself.
Johnson said Hernandez "had a couple of drinks" while playing soccer with friends earlier in the day and had engaged in "cordial conversation" with restaurant employees before the confrontation.
Hernandez's family has remained critical of the investigation into his death, saying deputies at the scene didn't interview potential witnesses and initially tried to have an assault charge filed against Hernandez.
Several of Hernandez's family members and protesters stood outside the courthouse Wednesday before the trial began.
"We're very optimistic that there will be justice. But we have to wait to see what happens," said Hernandez's sister, Jasmine Hernandez.
Hernandez's family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Thompsons, asking for at least $1 million in damages. The lawsuit is still pending in court.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juanlozano70