Jurors reached a verdict Monday in the trial of a 28-year-old man accused of killing two Palm Springs police officers who responded to a domestic disturbance call at his family’s home.
The verdict will be read at 1:30 p.m. at the Larson Justice Center in Indio. John Hernandez Felix is accused of firing an AR-15 rifle at veteran Officer Jose Gilbert Vega, 63, and rookie Officer Lesley Zerebny, 27, from inside the Felix family home in the 2700 block of Cypress Avenue on Oct. 8, 2016, killing both.
Jurors began deliberating late Thursday afternoon, and resumed its deliberations Monday morning.
Felix is charged with two counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder. The murder charges include the special circumstance allegations of killing police officers and committing multiple murders, opening him to a possible death sentence if convicted.
During closuring arguments Thursday, defense attorney John Dolan contended that at worst, Felix should be convicted of voluntary manslaughter. While conceding that Felix’s actions were “horrible,” Dolan argued his client’s auditory processing disorder and intense emotions — combined with methamphetamine use — created a “perfect storm” of irrational decision-making.
“It affects your brain, it eats your brain,” Dolan said of the drug for which Felix tested positive 15 hours after the shooting.
Dolan highlighted testimony from a defense expert, who said the amount of meth believed to be in Felix’s blood stream at the time of the shooting can cause inhibited planning, organization, emotional control and judgment. The witness also testified the drug “can impact one’s reality in understanding what is real and what is not.”
Even before the shooting, Dolan said, all three family members in the Felix home said the suspect was not “recognizable” that day.
“This is the difference between being rational and being irrational,” Dolan said. “Between premeditation, deliberation and malice of forethought, and unplanned irrational, disorganized. That’s what this case is about in a nutshell.”
Deputy District Attorney Manny Bustamante argued that the defense — in part through the testimony of Felix’s relatives — was “minimizing” the defendant’s actions.
“The defendant was a ticking time bomb leading up to that day,” the prosecutor said.
Bustamante reviewed for jurors the 37 times law enforcement had been called to the Cypress Avenue home previously as a result of Felix’s erratic behavior, as well as the felony assault conviction already on his record.
Bustamante also highlighted the moments leading up to the shooting.
“He didn’t shoot the mom. He didn’t shoot the house,” Bustamante said, recounting the minutes before Margarita Felix — the defendant’s mother — called law enforcement to the house for a domestic disturbance stemming from her hostile son. “He knew his limits.”
After the mother called the police, there was a 45-minute period in which Felix “barricaded himself inside that house. He has choices to make,” Bustamante said.
Instead of de-escalation, the defendant began an intentional “ambush” on police, the prosecutor said.
Before jurors left the courtroom to begin deliberations Thursday, the prosecutor reminded them that there is no instruction regarding rationality — which he defined as agreeable to reason and sensible — for any of the charges.
Vega and Zerebny were the first Palm Springs police officers 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 earlier.
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