The mother of the man who gunned down two Palm Springs police officers by firing an AR-15 rifle from inside his family’s home pleaded with jurors for her son’s life Wednesday as the penalty phase of his trial neared an end.
“Do you love your son?” defense attorney Jacob Devane asked the mother of 28-year-old John Hernandez Felix.
“Con todo mi corazon,” Margarita Felix responded, meaning “with all of my heart.”
“I would rather have my life taken away than my son’s,” she told jurors, testifying with the help of an interpreter.
Felix was convicted last week of two counts of first-degree murder, six counts of attempted murder, unlawful possession of an assault weapon, unlawful weapon possession by a prohibited person and unlawful possession of ammunition. Jurors also found true special circumstance allegations of murder of a peace officer and multiple murders.
The panel is now being asked to recommend the death penalty or life in prison without the chance of parole for Felix, who shot veteran Officer Jose Gilbert “Gil” Vega, 63, and rookie Lesley Zerebny, 27, on Oct. 8, 2016, as they responded to a domestic disturbance call from the Felix family home in the 2700 block of Cypress Avenue.
Maria Felix, the defendant’s older sister by six years, testified that her brother was “a very humble young man, a very good person, regardless of what happened.”
“Even when he was working, he would share his money with all his friends, take them to eat out,” she said through an interpreter.
Deputy District Attorney Michelle Paradise pressed the witness on her brother’s behavior. While living with Maria Felix and her children, police were called to their residence 37 times due to outbursts from her brother, the prosecutor said. The defendant’s sister said that was accurate.
Closing arguments in the penalty phase are set to begin at 9 a.m. Thursday.
Earlier this week, Vega’s stepdaughter testified that the lawman brought joy into her mother’s life, and she was devastated when her husband died.
Andrea Murray recalled her mother’s reaction the day Vega was killed.
“She says, `Mija, what am I gonna do now? What am I gonna do without my husband?”’ Murray said of her mother.
Murray said her mother’s “whole demeanor” changed when she began seeing Vega in the early 2000s.
“Her smile was even different a little,” Murray said. “Happiness just started trickling into her life.”
Vega was killed just months before he was set to retire after three decades of service.
Vega was the second-to-youngest of 10 siblings. All six boys in the family had the first name Jose, the officer’s brother, Jose Hector Vega, testified.
He told jurors that his sister fell into a depression and refused to eat after their sibling’s death, and she died of hunger.
Jose Hector Vega said his brother had always been shy as a child, but becoming a police officer helped him “tremendously” to become more outgoing. He also said he had been trying to convince his police officer brother to retire for years, worrying the job was too dangerous.
“I feel guilty … because I couldn’t convince him,” he told jurors. “He loved his job. He would always tell me that. He loved his job.”
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. Zerebny’s husband, Zachary, is a Riverside County sheriff’s deputy. Her father, David Kling, is a retired California Highway Patrol officer who joined the Palm Springs Police Department after his daughter’s death.
“Lesley had that drive to be a cop for far longer (than I),” Zachary Zerebny testified last week. “With her father in law enforcement and a law career, she held it very high and it’s something that she always wanted to do.”
Devane told jurors last week they should spare his client from the death penalty, saying the Palm Springs man has intellectual disabilities. But Paradise countered that the killings of two police officers warranted the death penalty.
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