Man who recorded video of John Hernandez altercation takes stand

By Ryan Korsgard - Reporter, Aaron Barker - Senior Digital Editor

Jurors at the murder trial of Terry Thompson heard from the man who recorded the widely circulated video of the fatal confrontation between Thompson and John Hernandez last year.

Thompson, and his wife, Chauna, a former Harris County sheriff’s deputy, have each been charged with murder in connection with the May 28, 2017, fight outside a Denny’s restaurant on Crosby Freeway in northeast Houston.

Ryan Staiger, who shot the cellphone video of the restraint that has been seen around the world, took the stand Tuesday afternoon.  He said he shot the video with his phone after he realized that Terry Thompson was too large for him to personally remove from on top of Hernandez. 

Staiger said he considered getting a gun out of his car, but decided against it when he heard Terry Thompson’s teen daughter say her mother, then a Harris County sheriff’s deputy, was on the way.  

“(It) wasn’t even a fight,” Staiger said. “This was just unfair … the size and the way he had him pinned.” 

Staiger described the scene as chaotic. He said a man in a leather jacket, as well as the Thompsons’ daughter, tried to stop him from shooting video that was about a minute long. He said his battery was dying and he could not shoot more.

Staiger said he felt Hernandez’s life was in danger because Hernandez could not fight back, and was grunting and gasping for air.

“He was trying to restrain him harder than would be logical force,” Staiger said.

Earlier Tuesday, Denny’s employee Melissa Trammell was on the stand.

PHOTOS: Terry Thompson stands trial

During her grand jury testimony, in the lead up to the Thompsons being charged, Trammell called Terry Thompson, “angry,” and said he would not “let up” as he restrained Hernandez.  She said she went outside the restaurant and told Hernandez, who she knew was drunk, to “be still.” She said she saw Terry Thompson hit Hernandez and heard him say, “I’m going to punch you if you don’t stop.”  She said Thompson was simply trying to hold down Hernandez and that Hernandez was being violent.

However, in court, she said Hernandez “could not have been violent.”

Defense attorneys tried to demonstrate inconsistencies between the testimony in court Tuesday and the grand jury testimony more than a year ago.  At times, Trammell asked defense attorney Scot Courtney, “Where (are) you going with this, sir?”

Trammell also said it was crazy to say Hernandez was violent because he was, instead, fighting for his life.  

“Right is right and wrong is wrong,” Trammell said. “I don’t think the man deserved to die.” Trammell, clearly frustrated, said to Courtney, “I know you’re trying to do your job, but you’re twisting my words.”

Courtney and Trammell also went back and forth over whether she had seen Hernandez in the restaurant before the fight. In her grand jury testimony on June 8, 2017, she said of his family, “They come in quite often.” On the stand, Tuesday, she said the night of the fight was the first time she had seen Hernandez and his family in the restaurant.

“I’m not going to agree with you,” Trammell said during the exchange.

Courtney also pointed out her past issues with the law.  According to testimony, those issues included serving time for illegal drugs and prostitution. In the end, Trammell said she did not know Hernandez had earlier threatened customers with a gun.

Another witness also took the stand late Tuesday morning. He said he was sitting near Hernandez, in the restaurant, before the fight.

Defense attorneys played his 911 call in court. On it, he said, of Hernandez, “He’s trying to tap out.” He gave a play-by-play to the 911 operator. He said, “He’s not even moving now.” The caller went on to say, “He looks like he’s not breathing.” During the call, he also said that Terry Thompson’s daughter was trying to get her mother and father off of Hernandez.  Finally, the caller said Hernandez was not breathing, saying, “He’s out.”

Chauna Thompson is scheduled to stand trial in October.

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