Trial slated to begin next week for a man accused of murdering two Palm Springs police officers will be delayed indefinitely, as his attorneys have appealed a judge’s decision to allow him to face the death penalty, the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office confirmed Monday.
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.
Felix’s attorneys argued that he should not face the death penalty due to alleged intellectual disabilities — an argument stemming from the 2002 Atkins v. Virginia case, which led to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute a defendant with intellectual disabilities.
During a court proceeding last month, testimony from three mental health experts were heard regarding his mental fitness, but Riverside County Superior Court Judge Anthony R. Villalobos ultimately ruled that prosecutors can proceed with their capital murder case against Felix.
Jury selection in Felix’s trial was slated to begin as soon as next Wednesday, but proceedings in the case are now stayed, while the state’s Fourth District Court of Appeals prepares its ruling on Villalobos’ decision.
Criminal proceedings were previously suspended for six months when Felix’s attorneys sought to have him found mentally incompetent to stand trial. They argued he suffers from “traumatic amnesia” and has no memory of the shooting, preventing him from contributing to an adequate defense, but Villalobos ruled in late 2017 that the defendant was competent to assist his attorneys in his defense.
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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