A man accused in the ambush killings of two Palm Springs police officers is mentally competent to stand trial, a judge ruled Thursday.
John Hernandez Felix, 27, is accused of fatally shooting veteran training Officer Jose Gilbert Vega, 63, and rookie Officer Lesley Zerebny, 27, on Oct. 8, 2016. Criminal proceedings against him have been suspended since May, when his attorneys declared doubts regarding his competence.
Felix, who is facing murder and other charges that could lead to the death penalty, is due back in court Dec. 15 for a preliminary hearing. Riverside County Superior Court Judge Anthony R. Villalobos made the competency ruling following a two-day bench trial that included testimony from three psychologists.
Defense attorney John Dolan contended that Felix is suffering from “traumatic amnesia” and has no memory of the shooting, preventing him from contributing to an adequate defense.
Two psychologists, Drs. William H. Jones and Michael Kania, testified Monday that Felix is competent to stand trial. Jones testified that Felix told him he was suffering from hallucinations and “presented himself as a childlike person who did not understand why he was being incarcerated.”
However, Felix’s familiarity with the criminal justice system through his prior convictions was part of what led Jones to conclude that Felix understood what he was facing. Jones said that after talking with the defendant, he “believed (Felix) had more understanding than he was admitting.”
Jones said there were no indications that Felix suffered any emotional trauma consistent with traumatic amnesia. Kania testified that Felix said he was aware that he was potentially facing the death penalty and that he didn’t believe Felix was being entirely truthful with him during portions of their interview in July. Both Jones and Kania also said that even if Felix were diagnosed with amnesia, it should not affect his ability to assist his attorneys.
However, Dr. Hilda Chalgujian, a neuropsychologist, said she believes Felix’s amnesia is legitimate and that emotional trauma sustained during the
shooting, along with Felix’s “sub-average intelligence” and documented substance abuse, could have contributed to poor memory. Chalgujian said this memory lapse puts Felix “at risk” of being mentally incompetent.
Assistant District Attorney Michelle Paradise leaned on a potential conflict of interest between Chalgujian and Dolan during the brief trial. In addition to her career in psychology, Chalgujian is a fourth-year law student at Dolan’s California Desert Trial Academy, an Indio-based school where he serves as dean. She also works as a law clerk under Dolan, but said she is receiving no compensation for furnishing her report on Felix, nor was she promised anything with regard to her academic career.
Chalgujian also condeded during questioning by the prosecution that Felix could be inventing the memory lapse and that claims of traumatic amnesia were more common in suspects of violent crimes, particularly homicides and attempted homicides. She also could not recall an instance during her career when traumatic amnesia affected the suspect, rather than the victim, of a violent crime.
Felix is accused of shooting Vega, Zerebny and a third officer through the metal screen door of his home when they responded to a family disturbance call. He also allegedly fired on two of their colleagues, who were not struck by the gunfire.
District Attorney Mike Hestrin has alleged that Felix, who’s accused of donning body armor and firing armor-piercing rounds from an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, specifically targeted police.
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, fatally shot 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 finish his career last December. He had eight children, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Zerebny had been with the department for a year and a half and had just returned to duty from maternity leave after the birth of a daughter, Cora, four months before her death.