A hearing to determine whether an accused cop killer charged with the slayings of two Palm Springs police officers is mentally fit to be executed began Tuesday with testimony from a psychologist who said she believes the defendant suffers from an intellectual disability.
John Hernandez Felix, 28, is accused of gunning down veteran training Officer Jose Gilbert Vega, 63, and rookie Officer Lesley Zerebny, 27, on Oct. 8, 2016, after they responded to a family disturbance call at his home. Testimony at a hearing last year indicated the 911 call that preceded the gunfire was sparked by a fight between Felix and his sister over a remote control device.
Felix is charged with two counts of murder and six counts of attempted murder, with special circumstance allegations of killing police officers and committing multiple murders which make him eligible for capital punishment if he’s found guilty.
Trial proceedings have been delayed twice over Felix’s mental fitness.
The latest hearing — called at Atkins hearing — is being held to determine whether a defendant is considered too intellectually incapacitated to be executed. The 2002 Atkins v. Virginia case led to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute a defendant with intellectual disabilities.
Dr. Hilda Chalgujian, a defense witness who is a licensed psychologist and clinical neuropsychologist, testified that she evaluated Felix in late 2016 and early 2017 with a number of tests examining his cognitive functioning. Though he displayed relatively normal functioning on visual tests, Chalgujian said Felix’s verbal skills were poor, which could be considered consistent with having an intellectual disability in regard to language functioning.
She said Felix also scored poorly in regard to attention, concentration and memory, all of which pointed toward him suffering from some kind of intellectual disability.
“Memory and language are two very important functions as far as what makes us human beings,” Chalgujian said. “If you can’t remember, you’re in trouble. If you can’t express yourself verbally, whether in spoken language or written language, you’re in trouble. You are not going to adapt and function right.”
Testimony is expected last through the week, with a final ruling from Riverside County Superior Court Judge Anthony R. Villalobos expected by the end of the month. At least one more defense expert witness, as well as a prosecution expert witness, are expected to testify.
Felix previously underwent a mental health competency trial in late 2017 after his attorneys, John Dolan and Jacob Devane, sought to have him found mentally incompetent to stand trial. They argued Felix suffers from “traumatic amnesia” and has no memory of the shooting, preventing him from contributing to an adequate defense.
Chalgujian also testified at that proceeding, where she stated that Felix’s “sub-average intelligence” and documented substance abuse could have contributed to poor memory, meaning he was “at high risk” of being incompetent and “might not be able to assist” his counsel.
Criminal proceedings were suspended for about six months before Villalobos ruled that the defendant was competent.
Felix is accused of opening fire on Vega, Zerebny and a third officer through the metal screen door of his home as they approached. He also allegedly fired on five of their colleagues, who were not struck by the gunfire.
District Attorney Mike Hestrin has alleged that Felix, who’s accused of donning body armor and firing armor-piercing rounds from an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, specifically targeted police.
Vega and Zerebny were the first Palm Springs police officers to be 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, who was fatally shot on Jan. 18, 1961, while investigating an armed robbery.
Vega had been with the department 35 years — five years past his retirement eligibility — and had planned to finish his career last December. He had eight children, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. 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, Cora, four months before her death.
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