Jury deliberations are set to continue Monday in the trial of a man accused of killing two police officers who responded to a domestic disturbance call from the family of the 28-year-old in what his lawyers describe as a “perfect storm” of drug-induced psychosis, intense emotion and a mental defect.
The prosecution is asking the jury to find John Felix Hernandez guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, six counts of attempted murder and special circumstance allegations of killing police officers and committing multiple murders. He faces a possible death sentence if convicted.
During closing arguments Thursday, Defense attorney John Dolan recommended jurors find his client guilty not of murder but of two counts of voluntary manslaughter, six counts of attempted voluntary manslaughter and three felony firearm possession counts.
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.
While conceding that Felix’s actions were “horrible,” Dolan argued his client’s auditory processing disorder and intense emotions created a “perfect storm” of irrational decision-making when methamphetamine was added to the mix.
“It affects your brain, it eats your brain,” Dolan said of the drug for which Felix tested positive 15 hours after the shooting.
Side effects of the quantities of meth believed to be in Felix’s blood stream at the time of the shooting include inhibited planning, organization, emotional control and judgment, defense witness Dr. Marjorie Graham-Howard testified during the trial, Dolan reminded jurors.
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 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, the prosecutor reminded jurthem 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.