When does self-defense turn criminal? Experts weigh in

HOUSTON, Texas -- Detectives, prosecutors, Texas Rangers and thousands of ABC13 users have watched the video of a fight outside a Houston-area Denny's that turned deadly.

On Tuesday, ABC13 watched that video alongside a criminal law professor and self-defense expert to get answers about when self-defense can turn criminal in Texas.

At the center of that video is a chokehold Terry Thompson applied to John Hernandez during an altercation outside the Denny's restaurant on May 28 around 11:40 p.m.

Chokeholds can be inherently dangerous. Neither the Harris County Sheriff's Office, nor the Houston Police Department train their cadets on chokeholds.

EMBED More News Videos

RAW VIDEO: Eyewitness video shows a closer view of deadly fight outside Denny's. (WARNING: Some viewers may find this video disturbing)

A review of recent reports suggest police departments across the country have moved away from them.

Chokeholds are not by themselves illegal. Texas law gives you the right to protect yourself, but has strict limits.

The experts ABC13 spoke with suggest there are a series of questions investigators and prosecutors are asking as they review the case:

- Was Thompson provoked?
* Texas law limits the right of self-defense in situations in which you start the fight. The video isn't clear, but eyewitnesses have talked to ABC13 about that in our past coverage. Thompson's lawyer has said the video does not show the whole altercation.

- Was Thompson's force 'reasonable'?
* Geoffrey Corn, a professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston, told ABC13, "(Thompson's) responsibility is to use reasonable and necessary force. How do we decide what that is? He makes a judgment at the time, but that judgment is ultimately subjected to a jury's scrutiny."

* Martial arts and self-defense expert Eric Williams said he's trained hundreds of Houston students in self-defense. Williams cautions, "Used improperly (chokeholds) become dangerous. Taught properly, you would release it immediately and use the lower level of technique possible to restrain someone."

* Williams, who owns Elite MMA in Houston, was further concerned by Thompson lying on top of Hernandez while applying the hold. Williams suggests your body weight can limit an opponent's ability to breathe all by itself. He demonstrated effective restraints that don't include your body weight on top of an opponent.

- Should Thompson have let up earlier?
* Williams warns, "(A chokehold) is not dangerous until you make it too long."
* Corn adds, "The law requires you use proportional force - no more than is necessary to deal with the threat. The image of this larger guy on this smaller guy creates a very strong perception of excessive force." Corn said that could ultimately be the issue for a jury.
Copyright © 2020 KTRK-TV. All Rights Reserved.