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Victim in Denny’s choking trial had history of violence

June 15, 2018 GMT

The Houston man killed during a late-night confrontation at a Denny’s restaurant assaulted his common-law wife in a drunken argument about three months before he was killed, the widow testified Friday.

The wife’s testimony dominated the third day of the murder trial of Terry Thompson, who is accused of killing 24-year-old John Hernandez by holding him in a chokehold last year. Thompson, 42, is the husband of Chauna Thompson, a now-ex Harris County Sheriff’s deputy who took part in the struggle at the restaurant and has also been charged with murder.

“He headbutted me,” said 25-year-old Maria Toral, during cross examination by Thompson’s defense attorney. “When he gets drunk, he isn’t himself. He can get mean.”

During more than three hours of tearful testimony Thursday and Friday, Toral maintained that Hernandez was a good father and husband who took the couple’s daughter fishing in Galveston Bay.

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However, defense attorney Scot Courtney confronted Toral with a February 2017 police report she made after being hit by her husband. As part of the report, she filled out a police checklist saying Hernandez was violently jealous and controlled her.

“You also told the police that you felt uncomfortable to have your daughter around John when he was drinking,” Courtney asked.

“I sometimes wanted to walk away,” Toral answered in tears. She also acknowledged Hernandez could be a “bigmouth.”

Friday’s testimony was in stark contrast to what Toral’s testimony the day before, when prosecutors called her to the stand to tell the jury that he was a good man. She said they fell in love when they were both 19. She said he was a good father who supported the family as an auto glass technician. He had even started his own business replacing windshields, she said.

“He was fun, he was always jolly,” she said.

A central pillar of Thompson’s defense strategy is to show Hernandez, who had a blood alcohol level of .204 - more than double the legal limit to drive in Texas - was drunk and initiated the confrontation that resulted in Thompson putting him in a chokehold in the parking lot of a Denny’s on May 28, 2017. They told the jury Thompson was trying to hold Hernandez until police could arrest him.

Prosecutors have said Thompson dominated the fight from the beginning and held Hernandez in a chokehold long after he stopped breathing.

“What you will hear is that within seconds of the confrontation starting, (Thompson) has the upper hand,” Assistant Harris County District Attorney Jules Johnson said in his opening statement. “He continues to hold this chokehold until it’s confirmed that Mr. Hernandez is no longer breathing.”

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On Friday, prosecutors called Deputy Sheriff Elmore Breaux, an internal affairs investigator for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, who went to the restaurant and interviewed Thompson and his wife, and other witnesses. The voice recording of his interview was the first time jurors time heard Terry Thompson’s version of events in his own words.

Thompson can be heard saying he confronted Hernandez because he saw him urinating in the parking lot, an action that offended Thompson because he was with his teenage daughter and two of her friends.

He said he yelled at Hernandez telling him there was a restroom inside and the two men ended up face to face. Thompson told police that Hernandez replied, “You want to go there?” and punched him in the left eye.

“So I took him to the ground,” Thompson told investigators. “I got him in a chokehold.”

In the brief question-and-answer interview, Thompson said Hernandez kept fighting, and tried to bite his arm, so he kept tightening his grip. His wife, Chauna Thompson, arrived and held down one of Hernandez’s arms. She was the first to realize he was no longer breathing.

“She said, ‘Is he non-responsive?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know,’” Thompson can be heard saying on the tape.

A medical examiner ruled Hernandez’s death as a homicide because of “anoxic encephalopathy due to strangulation with chest compression.” which means he died because he was strangled and could not breathe. He died three days later after being taken to LBJ Hospital in a coma from which he never recovered.

The defense has long contended Hernandez threw the first punch, hitting Thompson in the left eye, which led him to throw Hernandez down and restrain him despite pleas from others to release him.

During cross-examination, Courtney asked Toral if she heard Thompson say “Look at my eye, I’m not letting him go. I’m not letting him up until the cops come.”

She denied hearing that exchange.

Breaux, the investigator, is expected to continue his testimony Monday when the trial resumes in state District Judge Kelli Johnson’s court.

Testimony began Wednesday and the courtroom has been packed with friends and family of Hernandez. It is expected to last another week.

On Friday, a supporter said it was unfair for Hernandez’s past to be part of the trial because he can not respond.

“At the end of the day, we have to re-center the case around the fact that a murder was committed,” said Cesar Espinosa, executive director at FIEL Houston, an advocacy group. “One person is here present, which is Terry Thompson, and one person cannot be here, which is John Hernandez, because he is deceased.”

If convicted of murder, Thompson could face a maximum 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