palm springs police
The tragic scene after two Palm Springs police officers died and another was injured in a shooting. Photo via OnScene.TV.

A judge will decide late next month whether a 27-year-old ex-con accused in the ambush killings of two Palm Springs police officers should stand trial on murder and other charges that could bring the death penalty.

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.

After Felix’s attorneys declared doubts as to his ability to assist in his defense, Riverside County Superior Court Judge Richard A. Erwood ruled in May that criminal proceedings would remain suspended until Felix’s competence, of lack thereof, could be confirmed by two psychiatrists.

The doctors’ reports have since been filed with the court, and attorneys Friday afternoon agreed to tentative dates in late September for a bench trial in which Riverside County Superior Court Judge Anthony R. Villalobos alone would determine Felix’s competency to stand trial. The competency trial could run as long as a week and is slated to begin Sept. 25.

In order for a mentally incompetent finding, Felix’s attorneys would need to provide “substantial evidence” that their client does not understand the nature of the criminal proceedings against him and cannot assist his attorneys 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. Dolan also suggested Friday that he may file an Atkins motion, arguing that defendants with intellectual disabilities who are convicted of murder cannot be executed.

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.

District Attorney Mike Hestrin has alleged 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.

–City News Service

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