Man Convicted of First-Degree Murder in Shooting Deaths of Palm Springs Officers

The now 28-year-old is facing a possible death sentence.

A 28-year-old man who sprayed bullets from an AR-15 rifle at Palm Springs police standing outside his family's home, killing a veteran officer and a rookie who had just returned to duty after giving birth to a daughter, was convicted Monday of first-degree murder.

John Hernandez Felix faces a possible death sentence for the Oct. 8, 2016, killings of Officer Jose Gilbert Vega, 63, and Officer Lesley Zerebny, 27. In addition to the murder charges, jurors found true special-circumstance allegations of murder of a peace officer and multiple murders.

Felix was also convicted of six counts of attempted murder, stemming from the other officers who were in the line of fire outside the home in the 2700 block of Cypress Avenue, where they had gone in response to a domestic disturbance call.

Palm Springs Police Department
John Felix, 26, was accused of shooting and killing two Palm Springs officers and injuring another, according to the Palm Springs Police Department.

Jurors rejected allegations that Felix was wearing body armor during the shooting, but they convicted Felix of unlawful possession of an assault weapon, unlawful weapon possession by a prohibited person and unlawful possession of ammunition.

The trial will now move to a second phase, in which jurors will be asked to recommend whether Felix should be sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole. The penalty phase of trial will begin at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

Jurors deliberated over the course of two days before convicting Felix. The panel began deliberating Thursday afternoon and returned Monday, announcing by late morning that they had reached a verdict.

The verdict was read in an Indio courtroom packed with relatives of the victims, along with law enforcement officers from various agencies. Felix showed no emotion as the verdicts were read.

Deputy District Attorney Manny Bustamante argued during the trial that Felix fired 21 shots from inside his family's home as police stood outside. He said Felix carried out an intentional "ambush" on police, who had been called to the home 37 times previously due to his erratic behavior.

Felix also had a previous conviction for assault.

During closuring arguments Thursday, defense attorney John Dolan contended that at worst, Felix should be convicted of voluntary manslaughter. While conceding that Felix's actions were "horrible," Dolan argued his client's auditory processing disorder and intense emotions -- combined with methamphetamine use -- created a "perfect storm" of irrational decision-making.

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"It affects your brain, it eats your brain," Dolan said of the drug for which Felix tested positive 15 hours after the shooting.

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." 

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.

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.

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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