HOUSTON — Jurors heard in-person testimony and audio interviews Monday from several key witnesses in the trial of Terry Thompson, who’s accused of fatally choking John Hernandez outside a Denny’s in May 2017.
Jurors watched an interview with Thompson recorded inside a patrol car shortly after the incident. In that video, Thompson told the deputy he called out Hernandez for urinating in the Denny’s parking lot and pointed out the bathroom inside.
“’Do you want to go there?’” Thompson recalled Hernandez saying. “Go there? Next thing I know, I’m getting punched in the face.”
Thompson says he struck back and took Hernandez to the ground.
“I got him in a chokehold, but I’m not applying it,” Thompson says in the recording. “I’m just holding it.”
Jurors also heard a recorded audio interview with James Leon Keith, a bystander. Keith said after Thompson chastised Hernandez for urinating in front of his daughter, Hernandez “moved real tight and pushed him with his hands” before punching Thompson.
“I saw a man defending his children and his self against an aggressive behavior,” Keith said during the interview.
Hernandez’s family still maintains Thompson took things too far.
“The family and our positions remains the same that what should have been done, authorities should have been called at that moment,” said Cesar Espinosa, Executive Director of FIEL, outside the courtroom after those recordings were played. “There was no need for Mr. Thompson to turn into the person that restrains him, the jury, and the executioner on the scene that night.”
Jurors also saw photos deputies took at the scene of Thompson’s injuries, which showed his left eye turned red, with bruising and swelling.
Thompson’s lawyers also told jurors that Hernandez’s blood alcohol content two and a half hours after the incident was 0.204, more than twice the legal limit of 0.08.
“She’s saying that she feels there’s some inconsistencies in like the timeline and things like that,” said Espinosa, translating Hernandez’s mother’s comments from Spanish. “She says when asked about the swollen eye, she wants to reiterate that at some point, Johnny couldn’t hurt anybody because he was already unconscious and unresponsive.”
The jury also saw surveillance video taken from inside Denny's, looking out through the window toward the scuffle outside. It appears to show the two men grabbling, and even seems to show Hernandez briefly climbing on top of Thompson.
Two men working as servers at the Denny’s that night demonstrated the chokehold they witnessed on the prosecutors. They also testified that they each tried to pull Thompson off Hernandez and urged him to let Hernandez go.
Israel Hawkins, one of those servers, said when Hernandez was pinned, he repeatedly hit his hand on the pavement, like he was “tapping out” of the fight.
The waitress who served Hernandez and his family testified that she knew Hernandez was drunk when he and his family sat down to eat, but he showed no signs of aggression.
Prosecutor Patrick Stayton walked Melissa Trammell through the restaurant’s surveillance footage that showed Hernandez and his family sit down inside and later Hernandez walk outside, where the altercation with Thompson occurred.
Trammell testified that when she got outside the restaurant, Thompson was on Hernandez’s back and had him in a chokehold. She testified that because Hernandez was drunk, he couldn’t defend himself and that Thompson was red and angry in the face when he looked at her.
She said two employees tried to push Thompson off and that she told him to get off because Hernandez was turning purple, kicking his feet and tapping his hand—a sign she took meant he was giving up. Thompson told her, Trammell testified, that Hernandez should have thought about that before he hit me, and for her to look at his eye.
Testimony grew heated between Trammell and defense attorney Scot Courtney during cross-examination. Trammell said she only saw Hernandez on his stomach with Thompson on his back. Courtney kept pressing that others have testified that they first saw Hernandez with his back on the ground with Thompson on top before Hernandez ended up on his stomach.
Trammell was adamant that she only saw Hernandez on his stomach.
Courtney asked which way both Thompson and Hernandez were facing, which Trammell couldn’t readily answer.
“I can’t remember all the details, sir,” Trammell told Courtney. “I don’t want to remember.”
He asked her how long she thought certain moments lasted during the fight between Hernandez and Thompson. She said minutes, while surveillance video showed seconds.
At one point, Judge Kelli Johnson, who’s presiding over the case, had to intervene during the testimony and ask, “Everybody take a breath.”
Later during Courtney’s questioning, he said, “I know you don’t like me asking questions, Ms. Trammell,” to which Johnson intervened, saying, “Ask your next question, Mr. Courtney, without comment.”
Courtney pressed Trammell about the “gurgling sounds” she testified she heard Hernandez make while Thompson was on his back, a back-and-forth confrontation that caused Trammell to say: “I don’t know neither family, but right is right and wrong is wrong. He didn’t have to die. That’s what I’m fighting for right now.”
Johnson then called for recess until 9:30 Tuesday morning and excused the jury.