HOUSTON – Charges are being dropped against Chauna Thompson, the former Harris County deputy who was due to stand trial later this month in the death of John Hernandez, prosecutors said Wednesday.
Thompson and her husband, Terry Thompson, were each charged with murder in connection with the fatal confrontation outside a Denny’s restaurant in the Crosby area in May 2017.
Investigators said Terry Thompson confronted Hernandez outside the restaurant after noticing him urinating in the parking lot. The confrontation escalated to a fight, during which Terry Thompson placed Hernandez in a chokehold. A video showed Chanua Thompson holding Hernandez’s arms down while Terry Thompson laid on top of him.
Hernandez died days later.
On Wednesday, prosecutors said that they cannot show that Chauna Thompson had intended to injure or kill Hernandez, saying that she was not at the scene from the beginning of the confrontation. They said she performed CPR on Hernandez, which showed she was trying to save him.
"We've had more than eight lawyers look at the case, reviewing the records and transcript to see if there was some way we could bring a valid criminal case against her with sufficient evidence that we believe we could prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, because that's ultimately our burden to do," said Tom Berg, first assistant Harris County District Attorney. "We have to acknowledge that we can't."
Berg said that prosecutors aren't saying that they believe Chauna Thompson is void of responsibility in the case, and the civil case against the Thompsons can proceed.
"We're not finding her innocent by any stretch of the imagination, but we can't go forward in a criminal case," Berg said. "We have to see justice, and sometimes justice, for us, is disappointment."
Outside the Denny’s where the incident happened, family members of Hernandez, along with local activists, expressed their frustration.
"The news that we received today was very hard for all of us," said Melissa Hernandez, a cousin. "It was such a low blow. We really wanted for him to get justice -- (and) continue to get justice for John. ... We were really hoping that the justice system was going to be on our side and help us get what John deserved."
Cesar Espinosa, the director of FIEL Houston, a local nonprofit organization, said the group was very disheartened by the news that the charges would be dropped.
"We are adamant about the fact that we wish that Chauna Thompson would have gone to trial and paid for aiding in the murder of John Hernandez," Espinosa said. "Unfortunately, we learned today that is not going to be the case. Even though in the case of Terry Thompson, we have gotten a conviction of 25 years, we feel that number one, there could have been more time -- and number two, Chauna should have paid for her actions or for her participation in the murder of John Hernandez."
The Hernandez family said that in the end, relatives want closure, and based on the prosecutor's beliefs of not having enough evidence, they didn’t want to have to go through an annulled judgement, a mistrial or not-guilty verdict.
FIEL Houston released a statement that read:
"Justice is not always just or fair. Charges have been dropped against (C)hauna Thompson in the John Hernandez case. It's a very complex case and at the end of the day the DA did not think there was enough evidence to convict her. It's a hard pill to swallow but I ASK that we center on what the family wants which is to close this dark chapter in their lives. At the end Justice is subjective. The Hernandez Family will NEVER have true justice because this should have never happen to begin with. John should still be here... in the end whether on heaven or earth may there be #JusticeForJohn."
Chauna Thompson was fired from the Harris County Sheriff's Office three months after the fight. Sheriff's Office officials said that an appeal of her termination is being reviewed by the Civil Service Commission.
Terry Thompson was convicted of murder in November and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Chauna Thompson’s trial was scheduled to begin in late April.
"I had a conversation with her and she’s very emotional, as you can imagine," said her attorney, Greg Cagle. " ... Obviously, she’s happy, not having to endure a murder trial, having been charged with a crime she didn’t commit."
Cagle said he was more surprised that she was indicted in the first place.
"I think the dismissal is a (tell)-tale sign that the case should have never been indicted. There’s been no new facts developed since this case was presented to a grand jury," he said. "All the facts were known. Really, none of the facts were disputed, and so they left her under indictment for two years and dismissed the case three weeks out."