Gasping For Justice: The Fight For Accountability In The Choking Death of John Hernandez

IMG_2630In the span of just a few short years, the United States has seen coverage on the blight of police brutality and officer misconduct rise in prominence in both the media and the public eye. Going from an issue which in the past was largely regulated to African-American and Latino communities; and blowing up into a full-fledged national modern day battle for human and civil-rights within this country. Never before in the history of our society has police brutality/misconduct and the institution of policing itself as a whole in this nation gone through such sustained public scrutiny and inquiry like what we are currently witnessing right now. However, with that said, despite thousands of marches and protests all across the country, cries and demands from families, communities and the greater public for justice, federal investigations from the Department of Justice itself and an endless tally of victims which only continues to grow with every passing day; we have seen virtually little to no measurable amount of meaningful or genuine police reform enacted in this country. In fact, at this point in time it would be an understatement to say that the United States not only currently has a grave and deeply entrenched policing problem, but that the crisis which up until a few years ago had been practically ignored by broader ‘mainstream’ society is measurably getting worse and has reached epidemic proportions. In 2017 alone, hardly more than halfway through the year, at least 627 people throughout the country have lost their lives at the hands of U.S. police. A number which continues to grow at an almost daily rate far outpacing police related deaths in any other developed first world nation in the entire world! In fact, 2017 is already on pace to potentially become one of the deadliest years ever measured in regards to the number of people killed in the U.S. by police with the crisis seemingly showing no signs of waning nor slowing down.

This trend unfortunately is nothing new, and sadly far too many cases we see now currently almost identically mirror past incidents seen in the year prior, the one preceding that and so forth. As a writer, who in the past has regularly covered and detailed individual cases and broader issues regarding incidents of police abuse, brutality and murder; I’ll admit viewing seemingly countless videos captured on police dash cams, body cams and those captured on regular citizen’s cellphones documenting horrific and vile acts of violence perpetrated by police never gets any easier. It’s an experience that I constantly dread and makes me sick to my stomach with each viewing. However, over time it can numb one’s senses in regards to just the sheer volume and sickening abundance of these incidents which are captured, especially when taking into account that those that are documented are only a fraction of those that are perpetrated everyday in this country. That being said, nothing could have prepared me for the incident that I am about to share with you all.

I want to bring attention to the case of John Hernandez, which up until several weeks ago laid in relative obscurity and was unknown to a vast majority of the general public outside of the Houston, Texas area. The incident began on the night of May 28th, just after 11 PM in Sheldon, Texas, 17 miles northeast of Houston. On this particular night Terry Thompson, a forty-one year old white man, and his children pulled into a Denny’s parking lot. It was here in the Denny’s parking lot that Thompson came across John Hernandez, a twenty-four year old Hispanic man. According to KHOU, Hernandez, an avid soccer fan and his family had stopped at the restaurant after celebrating the victory of Hernandez’s favorite soccer team C.D. Guadalajara. Hernandez’s wife, Maria Toral had suggested that the family stop by the restaurant to have coffee after a day drinking and celebrating the victory. Shortly after arriving, Hernandez stepped outside of the restaurant and urinated near their vehicle in the restaurant parking lot. It would be the final place Hernandez would spend his last conscious moments alive. According to authorities, while pulling into the parking lot, this is when Thompson saw Hernandez urinating near his vehicle. After Thompson reportedly took it upon himself to verbally confront Hernandez, the two exchanged words and a fight eventually ensued. While it’s still unclear who instigated the fight, attorneys and the sheriff’s office said Thompson was offended by Hernandez’s actions, relieving himself in the restaurant parking lot, that led him to verbally accost Hernandez. According to KHOU, witnesses said that Thompson proceeded to “beat and restrain Hernandez even after he was clearly unconscious” and that “Hernandez was too drunk to defend himself against the much larger Thompson”. Midway through the altercation Terry Thompson was joined by his wife Chauna Thompson, a Harris County Sheriff’s Deputy who was off-duty at the time of the altercation and on her way to the restaurant to meet the family. At this point Toral and their three year old daughter who were both inside the restaurant when the incident initially began rushed outside, yelling at the Thompson’s to release Hernandez. Toral, as well as restaurant employees and other onlookers, begged Terry Thompson to stop but he and his wife ignored their pleas. It was also at this time when the anonymous recorder of the now infamous video began recording, a piece of evidence which has become crucial to the case.

I will not mince words, what was captured on tape in the fifty-three second video released by the Hernandez family and their attorneys is nothing short of a modern day lynching. What the video shows is a horrific display, showing Thompson with his entire body weight on top Hernandez, who is face down on the ground and placed in an illegal chokehold. Deputy Chauna Thompson, can be seen in the video, abetting her husband, pinning Hernandez’s arm while her husband places the weight of his entire body on Hernandez. With her knees on Hernandez’s neck, Chauna Thompson can also be heard yelling at him to “stay the fuck down” while her husband says to Hernandez: “Do you want me to hit you again?”. Hernandez can be seen thrashing his legs, while moaning and gasping for air as the Thompson’s literally choke the life out of him. Thompson who was clearly much larger than Hernandez literally used his own body as a weapon and is the epitome of excessive force. According to KHOU, a witness at the scene described Toral’s pleas to the Thompsons saying, “She was crying and telling (the man beating Hernandez) stop and he didn’t even stop,” While Toral herself said, according to KHOU, “I told him, ‘Please stop. Don’t do that to him. He’s drunk.’ He wasn’t in any position to fight. But, he didn’t have any compassion. He was really angry”. Hernandez’s wife literally begged the Thompsons to let her husband go as they killed him right in front of her and her infant daughter. As Terry Thompson slowly choked the life out of John Hernandez as his deputy wife can be seen and heard practically coaching him while holding down Hernandez’s limbs, the Thompson’s daughter actively tried to stop observers from recording the incident! During the course of the video, a woman (allegedly the Thompson’s daughter) deliberately walks in front of the camera trying to block the recording telling the viewer “It’s illegal to record,” even though the First Amendment protects the rights of citizens to film in public spaces, including incidents involving police officers. Likewise, another unidentified man in a black vest can also he heard threatening the recorder with the threat of arrest if they do not stop! The Thompson family along with other complicit, onlookers knowingly and intentionally attempted to eliminate the evidence of their homicide killing of John Hernandez by threatening jail time to the recorder!

The video cuts off after the fifty-three second mark but, witnesses say Terry Thompson allegedly held Hernandez in a chokehold for ten to fifteen minutes until he was unconsciousness, and by the end of the altercation Hernandez laid bloodied, motionless and unresponsive. When it became apparent that Hernandez wasn’t breathing Chauna Thompson called for assistance from the sheriff’s office and medical services, and Hernandez was rushed to a nearby hospital. John Hernandez never regained consciousness and remained in a coma for three days until late Wednesday, May 31, 2017 where he died at the hospital after he was removed from life support. Over the next couple of days a series of marches, protests and vigils were organized by the community and Hernandez’s family demanding justice for his death. According to the Houston Press in the days following the after of Hernandez’s death, “Sheriff’s office spokesman Jason Spencer refused to identify the deputy involved in the incident, or even confirm that the department employed a deputy named Chauna Thompson”. 

On Friday, June 2nd, 2017 Sheriff Ed Gonzalez requested that the Texas Rangers and the federal Department of Justice join the investigation, in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest since a sheriff’s deputy was involved in Hernandez’s death. However, in a separate report also from the Houston Press attorney attorney Randall Kallinen who represents the Hernandez family said Gonzalez ’s decision asking state and federal agencies to investigate, did so only “after quite some time, and only through public outcry”. 

On Monday, June 5, 2017 an attorney for John Hernandez’s family released the video of the incident. Philip Stephenson, a Houston attorney for the law offices of Jack B. Carroll, said “an anonymous concerned citizen brought me the video because he said it shows murder, and I concur”. Stephenson said “the bystander has no relationship to the Thompsons or Hernandez and simply wants the public and the authorities to have a full account of the events that led to Hernandez’s death”.

On June 6th, 2017, after performing an autopsy the Harris County medical examiner declared Hernandez’s death a homicide, saying Hernandez died as a result of anoxic encephalopathy (a result of when brain tissue is deprived of oxygen and there is global loss of brain function) due to strangulation and chest compression. On Wednesday, June 7, 2017 the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office announced that the case would be presented to a grand jury.

Finally, on June 8th, almost two weeks after the initial incident, deputy Thompson and her husband were finally indicted by a grand jury on criminal charges for murder, manslaughter and the negligent homicide of John Hernandez; facing anywhere from five years to life in prison if convicted. The Thompsons were allowed to turn themselves in to authorities hours after the indictments were issued, and each posted bonds of $100,000. Consequently, Chauna Thompson was placed indefinitely on unpaid administrative leave. Ultimately, the charges came three days after the family released video to the public of Terry Thompson applying the chokehold to Hernandez.

Since the couple’s arrest more damning facts and details have since come to light, it has since been revealed that Terry Thompson was a trained, avid MMA fighter. According to Click2Houston, prior to the indictment, attorney Randall Kallinen, who represents the Hernandez family said, “He (Terry Thompson) knew what he was doing. The maneuver is called a ‘blood choke’, and that’s where you cut off the blood to the brain, and that’s what he died from.” Kallinen also said he believed Chauna Thompson shared responsibility and should also be charged saying, “She was within a foot or two of John’s face, she could see that it was going on. She did nothing. That’s called an accessory, and she needs to be indicted, as well.”

Kallinen is not stretching the truth in regards to Terry Thompson’s knowledge of the danger of using illegal chokeholds. According to the Houston Press, in a wrongful death lawsuit brought against the Thompson’s the civil suit argues that the Thompsons were negligent and complicit in allowing Hernandez to die while they were restraining him. Pointing out that Chauna Thompson being a law-enforcement officer and Terry Thompson a trained MMA fighter, the lawsuit says the couple should have been “aware of the deadly nature of certain chokeholds.” Kallinen told the Houston Press that he had learned of Terry Thompson’s history of MMA training from posts on Thompson’s since-deactivated Facebook page. Also according to the Houston Press, “The civil-suit also contains graphic descriptions of Hernandez’s final moments. As Hernandez struggled for his life and bystanders yelled for him to be released, the suit alleges, Chauna Thompson told him, “Shut up, we are not letting you go, you already can’t breathe, so stop making noises”. Lawyers for the Hernandez Family argued, “The Thompsons knew [they] were killing John Hernandez”.

While I applaud the DA’s swift response and immediate indictment of the Thompson’s charging them both with murder, as well as the sheriff’s attempt of some semblance of transparency and accountability; there are still several issues in this case which I have come to recognize in an overall larger disturbing trend in regards to charging police officers and white vigilantes for crimes against African-American & Latino people all across the country.

First and foremost is the delayed response from the Harris County Sheriff in seeking assistance from outside agencies to help investigate. It is irresponsible and a disservice to victims of police violence and the public at large that we continue to allow the police to investigate themselves. It is an obvious blatant, conflict of interest that time and time again, we have seen leads to miscarriages of justice in the most egregious form and fashion and allows dangerous, problematic cops to shirk the system. Allowing cops to investigate themselves in regards to misconduct and abuse not only erodes trust, it endangers the public by potentially allowing problematic cops to fall through the cracks and remain on the job further endangering the communities they’re supposedly tasked with the duty to ‘protect and serve’! Are other accused criminals allowed to investigate themselves? No, of course not! That would be absurd! So then why do cops always seem to be the exception to the rule and allowed to investigate themselves?

Second, charges were only brought after the video evidence surfaced. It is absolutely possible, in fact even likely that if it wasn’t for the civilian video given to the family’s attorney, and the social media pressure and outrage the footage generated that both Terry and Chauna Thompson would have never been charged with murder and manslaughter. In the past we have police departments perpetuate lie after lie after lie to protect the absolute worst within their ranks, until they are contradicted by video evidence and forced to recant those lies and finally bring out charges against officers.  In the delay to bring about about charges,  in essence the Harris County Sheriff essentially gave the Thompsons an eleven day head start since the initial confrontation. Practically giving them plenty of ample time to lawyer up, scrub social-media, arrange bonds as well as supplying them plenty of breathing room to craft a narrative and get a lie straight. Again, it is a tactic we’ve seen used straight out of the police play-book time and time again where negligent and abusive officers are given days or even weeks to craft and fortify a defense because police departments refuse to take internal investigations seriously or outright purposely botch them altogether from the very beginning!

Third, the Thompsons we’re allowed to turn themselves in and let go on bail. You’d be hard pressed to find individuals outside of law enforcement that are allowed to turn themselves in after being indicted for murder let alone be given bail by a judge. In fact, not only were the Thompson’s allowed to turn themselves in, they spent no more than a few hours in jail and both were released that same Thursday night after posting relatively low bail payments of $100,000 each. Again, we see the rigid justice system suddenly bending over backwards giving police officers special privileges and amenities that would never be given to an average citizen if the roles were reversed and the shoe was on on the other foot.

Lastly, is the interference and intimidation of those who record the police both by law enforcement and their staunchest supporters. In the video, several people can be seen and heard obstructing the camera as well as threatening the videographer with violence and arrest for recording the incident even though it’s well within somebody’s First Amendment rights to film police activities in public. Police themselves can be monstrous enough when caught engaged in brutality and misconduct, however threats and intimidation from their supporters is an increasingly ongoing problem especially as police themselves become more and more emboldened under a ruthless Trump administration, which seems hell bent on undoing every trace of what little progress we made in regards to police oversight and reform under President Barack Obama.

IMG_2951 I’m not going to sugarcoat things, John Hernandez was extrajudicially murdered by Terry and Chauna Thompson. Chauna Thompson, a supposedly trained professional officer of the law had a responsibility to prevent the death of John Hernandez and she neglected to live up to that duty. In fact, not only did she neglect that duty but she willing participated and abetted in the strangulation and murder of John Hernandez! The Thompsons are despicable people who deserve to be locked up and made an example of for the murder of John Hernandez. John Hernandez spent the last conscious, agonizing moments of his life: kicking, gasping for air and grunting as he tried to free himself out of a choke hold which Terry Thompson held him in for over fifteen minutes while deputy Chauna Thompson held down his arms with her knee pressed against his neck until he was rendered brain-dead. The incident is made that much more frightening by the fact that Terry Thompson, not even being a law enforcement officer himself felt emboldened enough to act in such a manner, in the first place! Is this the point our country has reached? Where cops are so emboldened and brazen that even their spouses believe that they are entitled to the same despicable outs and protections that shield even the most ugly, vile, egregious and despicable individuals in law enforcement? Is this the kind of country that we are willing to accept?! A place where cops can not only get away scott free for murder, but now somebody only needs to be married to one to have the same immunity as well?! If John Hernandez was an officer, how different would this scenario be? John Hernandez didn’t harm anybody! He wasn’t disruptive, he wasn’t being a public nuisance or disturbing the peace! What he did hardly warranted a ticket let alone being choked to death in front of his family in a restaurant parking lot like a wild animal. Animals in this country are treated with more respect and dignity than how John Hernandez was treated in the final moments of his life. No man should have to die at the hands of some cop and their family for taking a leak in a parking lot. No man should be treated as an animal and murdered in front of their family and children like a dog in the street! There is absolutely not one damn thing John Hernandez could have said or done on the night on May 28th to warrant the death penalty! Time and time again we are told that people like Terry and Chauna are the exception to the rule in regards to the police and their most loyal supporters. They are not. They are exceedingly plentiful from coast to coast, who see people of color (especially those who commit crimes, no matter how minor) as animals and consider them to be less than human in this country. The sad reality that we now currently face is that killing somebody over something as trivial as peeing in a public place is perfectly acceptable to huge numbers of people in this country.

It should also be noted that these indictments are NOT justice for John Hernandez or his family. In fact, if anything they are the bottom rung and the bare minimum in a long process, which quite frankly many feared would not get passed the grand jury which we have seen before in the past. These indictments are just the first initial steps in what will undoubtedly be a long, drawn out and agonizing process for the friends, family and loved ones of John Hernandez. While I am cautiously optimistic now that gears are turning and a criminal trial is moving forward, we have seen time, and time, and time, again where police officers have been caught on tape, murdering people in broad daylight and at the end of the day when all is said and done, only for prosecutors to purposely bungle a prosecution, or biased (almost always majority white juries) still allow these abusive officers off the hook with absolutely no further recourse or repercussions! Too many times in the past have we seen police officers and white vigilantes alike indicted to quell public scrutiny only to see the killers walk away without even so much as a slap on the wrist from the “justice” system. I am reminded of words of the late James Baldwin who once said, “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive”. However, with each passing day I find it more and more difficult for me to avoid from sounding jaded and contain my cynicism, especially keeping in mind what we have seen in regards to similar past cases. In the coming weeks and months leading up to the trial, I’m sure that there will no doubt be a barrage of attempts to assassinate John Hernandez’s character, and that a dead man’s ethos will be put on public trial long before and much more harshly than that of his killers. I can only assume he’ll be slandered and painted as drug dealing thug who might have been high on PCP, or perhaps a neglectful drunk of parent who got what he deserved. The ‘blue lives matter’ crowd will donate tens of thousands of dollars for the murderer’s defenses. Fox News, Brietbart or hell even a legitimate platform like 60 Minutes will interview friends, family or even the Thompson’s own daughter who will say her parents are Jesus Christ and Mary Magadelene come again, while the police unions will vilify the ‘biased liberal media’ and say to stop politicizing and/or injecting race into the matter. We’ve seen it happen time and time again, we’ve seen it happen with such frequency and clockwork percision that we can predict what will happen like the plot of a cheap paperback novel.

These charges alone are not justice for John Hernandez, they’re not even close. Even assuming by nothing short of a miracle that a jury actually does do its job and convicts the Thompson’s on any one of the multiple charges; it still won’t bring bring John Hernandez back to his family. It won’t bring him back to his wife who is now left widowed, it won’t bring him back to his infant daughter is now left forever fatherless and left to live the rest of her life without knowing her Dad! No amount of blood, money or years added to the sentence will ever bring John Hernandez back to the people who love him and miss him the most; and it makes me furious! I’ll say it, I’m mad! I’m angry! I’m upset! I’m disillusioned with the system and its gatekeepers who continue to make a mockery of justice! Right now as we speak John Hernandez’s killers walk the streets a free man and woman while countess Black and Latino men and women languish away rotting in prisons all across the U.S. for nonviolent offenses! I’m mad that we as Chicanos, Mexican-Americans and Mexican-Immigrant communities are still being killed and beaten in street with impunity by police and white vigilantes and no one seems to care or take notice! I’m angry that after all we’ve done and continue to contribute to this society we’re still begging a rigged, biased justice system to do its job and actually deliver justice. I’m angry that even after performing an autopsy that declared Hernandez’s death a homicide due to strangulation and chest compression, coupled with video evidence showing Terry Thompson holding Hernandez in a chokehold while being assisted by his deputy wife, even after all this evidence against the couple which is as damning as the day is long, here we are still wondering if justice will be delivered for John Hernandez and his family!

Anybody with eyes and ears in the United States knows that video evidence, no matter how damning or incriminating by any means guarantees a conviction against the police; not by a long shot. Just weeks ago, officer Jeronimo Yanez, the killer of Philando Castile was acquitted of all charges after Castile’s girlfriend practically broadcasted the murder before a live studio audience on Facebook Live. The Prosecution of officer Ray Tensing, who executed Sam Dubose during a traffic stop last year has now twice resulted in a mistrial because jurors refuse to convict a police officer. Even the prosecution of officer Michael Slager, who was caught on video back in 2015, shooting Walter Scott five times in the back still ended in a hung jury and only just recently pleaded guilty to federal charges as part as plea deal to avoid state charges and going once again before a jury trial.

920x920Time and time again, even when video evidence is present in cases that would otherwise normally be slam dunk convictions against any other person we see cops getting off scott free and free of any repercussions whatsoever after brutalizing and murdering men, women and children on camera. In light of this disturbing and long standing trend, any reasonable, logical, cognitive functioning person has no choice but to confront that fact that in the eyes of the current U.S. justice system Black lives don’t matter, Brown lives don’t matter, Native lives don’t matter; by all accounts in the eyes of the justice system the only color that matters to them is blue. While I could go on for days about this case as well as others, I will close by repeating the same sentiments that I have said countless times in the past. The near total immunity that cops (and now their family members as well) appear to have in our society absolutely must come to an end now. Time and time again, we are all told the same tired line about the “few bad apples”, but no one in power ever seems to have any issue with the veil of secrecy and systematic protections that descend like clockwork whenever one of the “bad apples” hurt or kills somebody. Until we address and remedy these gross systematic inequities I fear that we will continue to see more of the same in the near future to come.

*The Thompson’s are due back in court next week on July 14th

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