A Palm Springs resident who gunned down two police officers suffers from intellectual disabilities and should be spared from a death sentence, a defense attorney told a jury Tuesday, but a prosecutor said the man deserves the severest of punishments.
“Guilt does not equal punishment,” defense attorney Jacob DeVane told jurors during his opening statement in the penalty phase of John Hernandez Felix’s trial, during which jurors will recommend a death sentence or a prison term of life without parole. “Mr. Felix is not the worst of the worst even in light of the crimes you have convicted him for.”
Felix, 28, faces a possible death sentence for the Oct. 8, 2016, killings of Officer Jose Gilbert Vega, 63, and Officer Lesley Zerebny, 27. Jurors on Monday convicted Felix of two counts of first-degree murder, along with six counts of attempted murder stemming from the shots he fired at other officers outside the defendant’s family home in the 2700 block of Cypress Avenue, where they had gone in response to a domestic disturbance call.
DeVane said factors such as Felix’s auditory processing disorder — which he described as a mental defect — along with a below-average IQ and drug use during the 2016 attack should all be considered mitigating evidence.
“You are not deciding guilt or innocence,” DeVane told jurors. “But what you are deciding is what would be the appropriate punishment in this case.”
Deputy District Attorney Michelle Paradise countered that the killings of two police officers warranted the death penalty.
“As a society, we establish laws and punishments that reflect those values that we hold dearest to us,” she said. “And, we reserve the most severe punishment — the death penalty — for those crimes that tear, literally rip apart, the fabric of our community. Those crimes that prey upon the innocent, and in this case, the heroic.”
Paradise said Felix preyed on “the honorable” and “the outstanding,” and said the “true motive” behind the shooting was “his hatred for law enforcement.” She also pointed to his criminal past, noting that he previously served four years in prison, and said the death penalty is the most appropriate punishment.
Felix was also convicted of unlawful possession of an assault weapon, unlawful weapon possession by a prohibited person and unlawful possession of ammunition. The jury rejected allegations that Felix was wearing body armor during the shooting.
They also found true special-circumstance allegations of murder of a peace officer and multiple murders, opening Felix to the possible death sentence.
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.
>> Want to read more stories like this? Get our Free Daily Newsletters Here!Follow us: