Opening statements are scheduled Wednesday in the trial of a man accused of killing two Palm Springs police officers, with prosecutors expected to introduce evidence of past contacts between the defendant and police that could point to a possible motive for the 2016 shooting.
John Hernandez Felix, 28, is charged with two counts of murder and six counts of attempted murder, with special circumstance allegations of killing police officers and committing multiple murders, making him eligible for the death penalty if convicted.
During a motions hearing April 9, Deputy District Attorney Michelle Paradise said she hopes to present evidence during the trial of two past contacts between Felix and Palm Springs police that could suggest a “motive to plan and intentionally make a choice” to fire at officers who responded to a domestic disturbance call at Felix’s mother’s house on Oct. 8, 2016, in the 2700 block of Cypress Avenue.
Veteran training officer Gilbert Vega, 63, and rookie Officer Lesley Zerebny, 27, were killed in the shooting.
“The people are going to intend to show motive in this case,” Paradise said. “And, in order to do that the people will ask questions regarding prior conduct between the defendant and Palm Springs police.”
Defense attorney John Dolan said he needed time to review the prosecutor’s motion, but said past animosity between his client and PSPD may also be part of his arguments during the trial.
In court documents, Dolan requested that Felix’s brother be included as a witness to show the family was “victimized by police.” Dolan pointed to a specific instance in which Felix and his father were beaten and arrested by police when PSPD officers came to the family’s residence looking for Felix’s brother.
Two weeks ago, after a monthlong selection process, a jury was impaneled.
Prosecutors say Felix opened fire on Vega, Zerebny and a third officer through the metal screen door of his mother’s property after the victims stepped onto the porch. He also allegedly fired on five of their colleagues who responded to the shooting. None were struck by the gunfire.
Felix was taken into custody following a 12-hour standoff.
District Attorney Mike Hestrin said the defendant wanted to kill cops, donning body armor and firing armor-piercing rounds from an AR-15 rifle during the attack.
The trial comes after a string of delays connected to defense motions regarding Felix’s mental fitness, including an argument alleging he has intellectual disabilities that should preclude him from execution if jurors recommend the death penalty.
Criminal proceedings were previously suspended for six months in 2017 when Felix’s attorneys sought to have him declared mentally incompetent to stand trial. They argued that he suffers from “traumatic amnesia” and has no memory of the shooting, preventing him from contributing to an adequate defense, but Judge Anthony Villalobos ruled in late 2017 that Felix was sufficiently competent.
Following a bench trial with testimony from mental health experts, Villalobos ruled that prosecutors could proceed with their capital murder case against Felix, leading to an appeal of the judge’s decision and another two- month delay. An appellate court denied the defense’s appeal seeking to bar the death penalty from being included as an option upon conviction.
Vega and Zerebny were the first Palm Springs police officers to be 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 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 before her death.
Felix, who is being held without bail at the Robert Presley Jail in Riverside, has a prior conviction for assault with a deadly weapon, for which he served time in state prison.