Clad in body armor, a now-28-year-old man fired wildly at Palm Springs police officers through the front of his mother’s home in 2016, killing two of them, and later boasted while being arrested about which officers he planned to shoot next, a prosecutor told jurors Wednesday.
But an attorney for John Hernandez Felix countered that his client, saddled by an intellectual disability and a history of drug abuse, acted out of immaturity and impulse — not premeditated intent — when he opened fire.
Felix is charged with the deaths of veteran Palm Springs training Officer Gilbert Vega, 63, and rookie Officer Lesley Zerebny, 27, who were shot Oct. 8, 2016, when they responded to a domestic disturbance call at Felix’s mother’s home in the 2700 block of Cypress Avenue.
“If acts were the only consideration for you as a jury, this case is indefensible,” defense attorney John Dolan said during his opening statement of Felix’s trial in Indio.
“But, in criminal law — in this case as in any criminal case — there are two parts to any crime that is alleged. There’s an act and there’s an intent,” Dolan said.
He said Felix’s history of family neglect, low educational achievements, drug abuse and an intellectual disability show he did not possess a pre-meditated intent to kill the officers.
Rather, the surrounding circumstances show that “factually, this is immature, angry, emotional, impulsive behavior.”
But Deputy District Attorney Manny Bustamante contended in her opening statement there is clear evidence of premeditation and intent. He pointed to the initial 911 call made by Felix’s mother, saying the call includes audio of the defendant helping his mother give the dispatcher the family’s address, “so she could tell 911 where the officers should go to.”
According to Bustamante, after Felix’s mother made the 911 call, she saw her son holding “something black and two feet long,” prompting her to tell her daughter and grandchildren to exit the home.
While waiting for police, Felix’s mother called Adult Protective Services for help, at which time his father was able to confirm the defendant had a gun and “he’s waiting” for the police, the prosecutor said.
Bustamante went through a step-by-step timeline of the arrival of Vega and Zerebny, their confrontation with Felix as they approached the house, and Felix firing 21 shots through the front door and drywall of the home. Ten of those shots hit either officers or their vehicles, Bustamante said.
The prosecutor showed jurors the AR-15 rifle Felix allegedly used during the standoff, and described how Zerebny was struck in the back by a bullet, which went through her bulletproof vest and “devastated” all of her internal organs.
Once the two officers’ bodies were removed from the scene, a 12-hour stand-off ensued, he said. Felix was finally persuaded out of the home by a SWAT team with the assistance of tear gas and a robot that broke down the garage and screen door.
When outside, Felix — who was wearing a bulletproof vest of his own — told arresting officers, “I’ve seen your faces. You’re next,” according to Bustamante.
Felix’s actions show that the “defendant’s decisions — and I say that plural — decisions and actions” were consistent with premeditation, the prosecutor said.
As testimony began, Felix’s sister, Maria, said that a year prior to the shooting, her brother was often in and out of her parents’ home. She said Felix had a history of aggressive behavior, including punching walls, but on the day of the shooting, her brother “exploded.”
She said Felix is not mentally handicapped, but struggles with English because Spanish was his first language.
Felix is facing a possible death sentence if convicted. He 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.
The trial comes after a string of delays prompted by defense motions questioning Felix’s mental fitness, including an argument alleging he has intellectual disabilities that should preclude him from execution if jurors recommend the death penalty.
Criminal proceedings were previously suspended for six months in 2017 when Felix’s attorneys sought to have him declared 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 Judge Anthony Villalobos ruled in late 2017 that Felix was sufficiently competent.
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 retire in 2018. He had eight children, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Zerebny had been with the department for 18 months and had just returned to duty following maternity leave, having given birth to a daughter, Cora, four months before her death.
Felix has a prior conviction for assault with a deadly weapon, for which he served time in state prison.
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