Days after an off-duty Texas sheriff’s deputy was accused of helping her husband choke a man to death outside a Denny’s restaurant, both have been charged with murder.
Harris County Sheriff’s Deputy Chauna Thompson and her husband, Terry Thompson, were indicted Thursday in the killing of 24-year-old John Hernandez. Hernandez was hospitalized after he was choked during a late-night encounter with the couple May 28, authorities said, and he died three days later. The Thompsons turned themselves in to the authorities Thursday night and were released from jail on $100,000 bail, according to the Associated Press.
The deadly Memorial Day weekend confrontation started outside the restaurant in Sheldon, Tex., 17 miles northeast of Houston. Investigators say Hernandez had been drinking and was urinating outside the restaurant when Terry Thompson approached him. A verbal confrontation turned physical, although it’s unclear who escalated it, authorities said.
What happened next was captured by a passer-by on a cellphone video. As the video starts, Hernandez is seen facedown on the ground, kicking and struggling to get Thompson off him. Thompson, 41, has his arm locked around Hernandez’s neck and uses his chest to pin the younger man to the ground.
In the video, Chauna Thompson is seen helping her husband by pinning Hernandez’s arm. On her knees, she yells at Hernandez to “stay the f— down.”
Her husband says to Hernandez: “Do you want me to hit you again?”
Hernandez’s wife, Maria Toral, and their daughter were inside the Denny’s during the confrontation and rushed outside, according to CNN. “The little daughter was screaming, ‘Quit hitting my daddy,’ ” the family’s attorney, Randall Kallinen, told CNN.
Melissa Trammell, a Denny’s employee, said she was standing next to the girl and also begged Terry Thompson to let go of Hernandez. Hernandez “was kicking for his life, struggling. At first I thought it was legitimate,” Trammell told reporters after testifying before the grand jury. “He was just going to hold him down, whatever. When I seen the man turning purple, there was no letup. And [Thompson] looked me in my face and told me he’s not getting off him.”
The Thompsons continued until Hernandez was immobile, investigators said.
When Chauna Thompson “observed that the man had stopped resisting, she and her husband stopped restraining him,” Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said at a news conference.
But Hernandez, 24, wasn’t breathing. Chauna Thompson attempted to perform CPR as paramedics headed to scene.
Hernandez was rushed to the hospital, but he slipped into a coma and died three days later.
The Harris County medical examiner said Hernandez died from a lack of oxygen to the brain caused by chest compression and strangulation, according to the AP.
Hernandez was Latino and both Thompsons are white, but sheriff’s investigators have not said whether they believe race was a factor in the killing.
Deputy Thompson was placed on administrative leave and the sheriff’s office said she was cooperating with investigators.
Scot Courtney, a lawyer for Terry Thompson, told the AP he didn’t believe there was enough evidence to warrant a murder indictment. He also criticized the sheriff’s office for putting the case before a grand jury less than two weeks after the incident.
Terry Thompson’s actions were self-defense, he said.
“After being confronted with urinating in public, rushed to my client and struck him in the face,” Courtney told CNN. “Now, I would consider that an attack.”
The victim’s cousin Melissa Hernandez told the AP that the indictments were “a great step in the right direction.” She said the family would “keep fighting” until they get “the justice that John deserves.”
Hernandez’s death comes as law enforcement officers are under increased scrutiny for fatal confrontations, particularly with minorities. So far this year, 421 people have been shot and killed by police, according to The Washington Post’s Fatal Force database. (Of those, 98 were black and 66 were Latino.) Last year, 963 people were killed by police.
Dozens of people gathered at the Denny’s on Thursday, the day of the indictments, vowing to support the Hernandez family through the trial and demanding justice. Some held signs calling for “#JusticeForJohn,” and the hashtag spread on social media.
“Every time I see my niece, I realize she’s not going to get her father back,” Ernesto Saravia, brother-in-law of John Hernandez, told CBS affiliate KHOU. “She’s not going to get her father back in five years. She’s not going to get him back in 10 years, not in 20 years. So I want what everybody wants: I want to get that life sentence.”