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Eyewitness testifies in trial for choking death outside Denny's

The eyewitness and wife of John Hernandez told their account of what happened on the night Hernandez was choked to death in a Denny's parking lot.

HOUSTON – An eyewitness and the wife of John Hernandez took the stand Thursday in the murder trial of Terry “Brian” Thompson, who’s accused of killing Hernandez outside a Denny’s restaurant Memorial Day weekend 2017.

Hernandez’s wife, 25-year-old Maria Toral, told the jury that her husband, their 4-year-old daughter and herself went out to eat that Sunday evening after her husband got home around 10 p.m. after a day of playing soccer and watching a finals match with his friends that involved his favorite soccer team, Chivas.

Toral said she suspected Hernandez had been drinking when she and her daughter got in the car, but assumed he was OK because he had driven home. She quickly realized, she testified, that he wasn’t a minute or two after they drove away. That’s when she recommended that they stop at the Denny’s near their home for dinner.

The prosecution played several surveillance videos from inside the Denny’s that showed Hernandez pulling into the restaurant, their family walking in and sitting inside. The videos showed the family sitting down and Hernandez getting up from the table and walking outside. Video from behind the cash register, which showed the front doors, also showed a crowd gather outside as the fight occurred and a man in uniform that Toral said she believed at the time was a police officer. She later learned, she testified, that man was a security guard.

Toral testified that while Thompson was on top of Hernandez, her husband gasped "I can't breathe" while Thompson had him in a chokehold. Toral said she told Thompson "he can't breathe," which is when Thompson looked at her and let go of his chokehold, she said, though Thompson didn't get off Hernandez's back.

The defense pointed out inconsistencies in Toral’s testimony from Thursday and what she told police officers the night of the fight and later a grand jury. The defense questioned if Toral and Hernandez were legally married and why she told police and the grand jury that she was driving that night when it was Hernandez behind the wheel.

Toral said she and Hernandez signed a common-law marriage agreement in November 2012 after living together for six months. When asked by the defense why she referred to Hernandez as her boyfriend to police officers, she said she used boyfriend and husband interchangeably.

As to her reasoning to lying about driving, she said she was in a state of confusion and “wanted to protect my family,” adding, “I didn’t care about life anymore.”

Toral testified Hernandez was a loving father who nicknamed their daughter “la mami” and who told Toral “he never knew he could love someone so much until we had her.”

The eyewitness, Blake Wise, 25, was in the restaurant's parking lot prior to the fight between Thompson and John Hernandez.

Wise said he was with two friends when he encountered Hernandez who he says looked intoxicated.

“He looked like he could hardly stand,” Wise testified. “He was just standing there blankly looking in our direction. He looked intoxicated, swaying back and forth. He wouldn’t quit looking in our direction. I felt like something was going to happen.”

Wise testified Hernandez pulled up with his girlfriend and 4-year-old daughter just as Wise and his friends were leaving. Wise said he told his friends he had a bad feeling and that they needed to leave. He said Hernandez tried to pick a fight with him.

“[He] threw his hands in the air,” Wise said. “So I put my hands in the air and said, ‘What’s up?’ Then he is asking me ‘if you wanna fight?’”

Wise said he just stood in place listening to Hernandez who was about 100 feet away.

“When I went to get inside my truck I heard him yell, ‘I’ve got a gun too,’” Wise testified. “[Hernandez] told me that he had a .40 in his truck.”

Wise said Hernandez’s girlfriend pulled on his arm to get him inside of the restaurant and apologized to Wise telling him that Hernandez was drunk.

“I had a bad feeling something was going to happen that night,” Wise testified. “Between that person and someone else.”

Wise said he left and called 911 once he got on the road.

The 911 call was played before the jury on Thursday. Wise said he was calling because he was frightening for the little girl’s safety.

“We’ll get the next available unit en route,” said the Harris County 911 operator.

That unit turned out to be too late. Shortly after the confrontation with Wise, Hernandez encountered Thompson.

Thompson allegedly saw Hernandez urinating in the parking lot of the Denny’s and confronted him.

Testimony from the intake supervisor with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office testified deputies reported Hernandez struck Thompson in the face first.

Thompson is accused of then putting Hernandez in a chokehold for more than 15 minutes until he stopped breathing. Hernandez was taken to the hospital and died a few days later.

Thompson has pleaded not guilty in the case. He faces life in prison, if convicted.

To add to the courtroom drama on Thursday, two people were removed from the room.

One person was removed for taking a photo on his phone and the other person was removed for threatening a witness.

On Wednesday, the first day of the trial, opening statements were held in the civil courthouse in downtown Houston.

Attorneys told dramatically different accounts of the events that occurred on the night of May 28, 2017 outside of the restaurant.

The trial continues at 8 a.m. Friday.

Chauna Thompson, Terry's wife and a former Harris County Sheriff's deputy, will be tried in October—also for murder in this case. She is accused of holding Hernandez down while her husband maintained the chokehold.