Grand jury to hear case of man who died after Denny's confrontation
DA will present felony charges Thursday
HOUSTON – Both the Harris County Sheriff's Office and the Harris County District Attorney's Office spoke Wednesday about the case of a man who died last month after a confrontation with a deputy’s husband outside a Denny’s restaurant in Sheldon.
John Hernandez died three days after video showed Terry Thompson, the husband of Harris County Deputy Chauna Thompson, using a chokehold to detain Hernandez after a confrontation between the two men.
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said he has confidence in his agency's investigation, while the office of Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said they will begin presenting the case to a grand jury Thursday.
"We don't tell (the grand jury) what to do. We lay out the law, and in this case, it's the law of homicide in Texas. We will tell them what the different charges could be, they will hear the evidence, they will decide (if) there is probable cause based on the evidence that they hear," Tom Berg, first assistant district attorney, said. "We want justice for John Hernandez. We want justice for the Thompsons as well. For everybody who is involved in this case."
Berg explained that prosecutors will show no favoritism and will be transparent throughout the process.
"This has to be done right. It needs to be done quickly, but it needs to be done deliberately, too, so we don't rush to justice," he said.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Gonzalez said he is confident that his agency has met the goal of thoroughly investigating Hernandez's death and giving prosecutors the information they need to present the case to the grand jury.
"We want to get this right," Gonzalez said. "There's no favoritism one way or another -- that's why we have to be very deliberate."
According to a spokesperson for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, Chauna Thompson and her husband arrived at the restaurant with their three children on the night of May 28 and saw Hernandez, 24, urinating in the restaurant parking lot. Investigators said Terry Thompson confronted Hernandez about his behavior, and a fight began.
Video shot by a witness showed the deputy and her husband pinning Hernandez to the ground. Terry Thompson appeared to be choking Hernandez with his forearm.
VIDEO: Attorney presents new video of confrontation
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Hernandez was hospitalized after the confrontation. He died three days later after he was removed from life support.
The Harris County medical examiner said an autopsy found that Hernandez died from anoxic encephalopathy because of strangulation with chest compression. WebMD describes anoxic encephalopathy as damage to the brain from a lack of oxygen. His death was ruled a homicide.
Gonzalez said Tuesday that Chauna Thompson has been indefinitely reassigned to administrative duty. He also noted that things like this take time.
"There is a sense of urgency. There's many things I wish could have been done on day one, the second, the third day. Mr. Hernandez did not die immediately at the scene. There was also a hospitalization that occurred," said Gonzalez. "It's important that these investigations -- it's very critical to get the cause of death and manner or death from the medical examiner's office that would only be determined post-autopsy."
Her attorney said Hernandez was the aggressor and that she and her husband were trying to stop the assault.
Berg, the assistant DA, said the case was originally reported as an assault.
"And so homicide did not report to the scene. Obviously, in hindsight, that was a bad decision. Because it is a homicide," said Berg. "We can't address why that happened -- that's just something that we live with. We would have much rather had homicide detectives there at the time to develop evidence instead of doing it belatedly, but that's what we got."
Berg said the quality of evidence may have been different had a homicide detective responded to the scene.
"Homicide detectives are trained to ask questions in a particular way. We had patrol officers at this scene responding to -- what looked to them and was reported to them as a fight between two individuals. At least one of [those involved] was intoxicated," said Berg. "[The responding deputies'] approach was different."
Berg also said there were details left out by the sheriff's investigators.
"I can tell you, when the case was called into intake that first night, and it was only reported that Mr. Hernandez assaulted Mr. Thompson -- because they were asking for assault charges again Mr. Hernandez -- that there was no report that Mr. Hernandez had been taken unconscious to the hospital and in fact showed very few vital signs."
However, Berg said he is not worried. He said he will present the case to a grand jury.
"We're concerned that things happened later than they should have, but I think we've got a complete picture now," said Berg.
Sheriff Gonzalez said they are still investigating any leads. He asked that anyone with information on the matter call the office at 713-274-9100. Gonzalez is standing by his agency's work.
"I think we've done a thorough investigation, and I think there is ample information to make the right decision."
Ogg, in a written statement Wednesday, said her office wants to ensure a fair process for both the victim and the accused.
"We are dedicated to a fair, evidence-based process," Ogg said in the statement. "We appreciate the concerns, and justice will be served."
Their news conferences were held on the same day that a sit-in, rally, march and news conference were held by the group dubbed #JusticeForJohn, which is calling for charges to be filed in the case.
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