A 26-year-old ex-con charged with murdering two Palm Springs police officers will be evaluated by two psychiatrists, who will submit their findings to the court next month as to his mental competency to stand trial, a judge ruled Friday.
John Hernandez Felix is accused of opening fire on five Palm Springs police officers who responded to a family disturbance call last Oct. 8 at his home in the 2700 block of Cypress Avenue. Veteran training Officer Jose Gilbert Vega, 63, and rookie Officer Lesley Zerebny, 27, were fatally wounded and a third officer was shot, but survived.
A preliminary hearing had been scheduled Friday morning to determine whether there’s enough evidence for Felix to proceed to trial on a litany of charges, including two counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder. But Felix’s attorneys recently declared doubt as to his competence to assist in his defense.
Defense attorney John Dolan said he doubts Felix’s competence after having conversations with him and engaging the services of a neuropsychologist.
Riverside County Superior Court Judge Richard A. Erwood ruled that criminal proceedings will remain suspended until Felix’s competence, of lack thereof, can be confirmed by two psychiatrists. The doctors will be required to submit their reports to the court by June 21.
In order to show that he is mentally incompetent, Felix’s attorneys must show that there is “substantial evidence” that Felix does not understand the nature of the criminal proceedings against him and cannot assist his attorneys in his defense.
Prosecutors argue in court filings that if this is not shown, his competence may still be evaluated without suspending criminal proceedings, via a court-appointed psychiatrist.
Felix, who’s being held without bail, is accused of shooting Vega, Zerebny and a third officer through the metal screen door of his home and later firing on two of their colleagues, who were not struck by gunfire.
The shooting triggered a 12-hour standoff and his eventual surrender. Prosecutors allege Felix was wearing body armor and fired armor piercing rounds from an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.
The two first-degree murder counts include special circumstance allegations of murder of a law enforcement officer, lying in wait and taking multiple lives in the same crime, making Felix eligible for capital punishment if found guilty.
District Attorney Mike Hestrin has said Felix specifically targeted police.
“This individual knew what he was doing. His actions were deliberate. He attacked these officers for no other reason than they were there, answering a call for service,” Hestrin said when the charges were announced last fall.
The deaths of Vega and Zerebny marked the first time Palm Springs police officers were killed in the line of duty since Jan. 1, 1962, when Officer Lyle Wayne Larrabee died during a vehicle pursuit. The only other death in the department was that of Officer Gale Gene Eldridge, fatally shot Jan. 18, 1961, while investigating an armed robbery.
Vega had been with the department for 35 years — five years past his retirement eligibility — and had planned to finish his career last December. Zerebny had been with the department for a year-and-a-half and had just returned to duty from maternity leave after the birth of a daughter four months before her death.
Felix was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to two years in prison for a 2009 crime that originally drew an attempted murder charge. He was also convicted of street gang activity.
After his release from state prison, he was accused of resisting arrest by Palm Springs police on the same street where he allegedly shot the three officers.
Court records show that he was on probation at the time of the shooting for a misdemeanor driving-under-the-influence conviction.
— City News Service
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