HOUSTON - A judge Friday denied the change of venue request for former Harris County Deputy Chauna Thompson and her husband who had said they can’t get a fair trial in Harris County because of extensive pretrial publicity that followed the death of John Hernandez.
Judge Kelli Johnson, of the 178th District Court, issued her decision Friday morning.
Johnson said based on the previous hearing she found no evidence of a dangerous combination against the defendants that would prevent them from having a fair trial in Harris County.
Chauna and Terry Thompson did not say anything as they were escorted out of the courtroom by deputy constables.
The trial is set to begin May 18.
Chauna and Terry Thompson are charged with murder in the death of John Hernandez at a Denny’s in Crosby last May.
Hernandez allegedly swung at Terry Thompson, who then held him in a chokehold while Chauna Thompson helped hold him down.
Hernandez died a few days later.
Hernandez was originally charged with assault after the fight, but the Thompsons were later charged with murder after a bystander’s video of the fight surfaced and went viral.
The Thompsons' attorneys contend that frequent airing of that video on television and the internet tainted the jury pool. They also said pretrial publicity pressured the district attorney and the sheriff to rush the investigation that resulted in the grand jury indictments of the Thompsons.
Prosecutors denied those allegations in court Tuesday.
“There wasn't a rush to put this before a grand jury at all. The state was just preserving testimony with the grand jury. The state was really trying to just essentially get the case moving forward as it should,” Assistant District Attorney Scott Durfee said.
The defense put the district attorney’s communications director, Dane Schiller, on the stand to question him about advisories that were posted on the district attorney’s Facebook page concerning the progress of the investigation into Hernandez's death.
Defense attorneys said there were seven references to the investigation posted between May 28, 2017, and June 16, 2017. Some included links to news stories that were printed or broadcast on Channel 2 News, The New York Times, The Huffington Post and the Houston Chronicle.
On the stand, Schiller said the district attorney’s staff didn't vet the stories for accuracy.
Chauna Thompson’s attorney, Greg Cagle, alleged that the stories provided an incomplete picture of the incident and investigation, and that posting them on the district attorney’s Facebook page could have been seen as endorsing the report's credibility.
Schiller denied that. He said the links were included to provide information.
"It’s definitely not an endorsement, one way or another” Schiller said.
“We’re just saying here’s some information professionally gathered. It’s that level. It’s not some garbage from the internet. The pros have looked at it. If you want to see it, click,” Schiller said following his testimony.
Durfee countered the argument that the Thompsons can’t get a fair trial in Harris County because of the extensive coverage, saying that the county has a potential jury pool of over 4 million people available, and that finding 12 unbiased jurors for a trial shouldn’t be difficult.
He cited a similar Supreme Court decision in the case of Enron CEO Jeff Skilling.
John Hernandez’s father and family sat in the courtroom throughout the hearing Tuesday and earlier on Monday.
Beneficio Hernandez said the family wanted to be there to represent his son, who can no longer represent himself. The elder Hernandez said it doesn't matter to him or his family where the trial is held. Whenever it is, the family will be there.
Both the state and defense wrapped up their arguments and rested Tuesday.
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