Jury selection in Palm Springs Police killings starting Monday

Accused killer John Felix headed to trial

INDIO, Calif.- - Jury selection will start Monday for the case of John Hernandez Felix, accused of killing two Palm Springs Police officers in late 2016. Approximately 700 jurors are expected to be called over a four-day jury selection period. 

Felix, 28, is accused of gunning down veteran training Officer Jose Gilbert Vega, 63, and rookie Officer Lesley Zerebny, 27, on Oct. 8, 2016, after they responded to a family disturbance call at his home.    

Opening statements in the trial are scheduled for April 17. Evidence is expected to be presented starting the following day. A  judge set a tentative date for expected jury deliberations of May 13, with the potential death penalty phase starting May 20.

Judge Anthony R. Villalobos declared Friday that access by the media to record video of testimony during the trial would be denied. Villalobos said he would only be allowing recording during the opening statements, closing arguments, and verdict. 

Palm Springs Police Chief Bryan Reyes is encouraging the public to support fallen officers. He tweeted out a link for the public to purchase specialty license plates with funds collected going to the Califronia Peace Officers Memorial. You can learn more about the organization and find out how to support by clicking here. 

Felix is accused of opening fire on Vega, Zerebny and a third officer through the metal screen door of his home as they approached. He also allegedly fired on five of their colleagues who responded to the shooting, none of whom were struck by the gunfire.

Testimony at a prior court hearing indicated the 911 call that preceded the gunfire was sparked by a fight between Felix and his sister over a remote control device.

Felix was taken into custody at the residence following a 12-hour standoff.

He 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 he is 

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.

The road to Felix's trial comes after a string of delays via defense motions regarding his mental fitness, including an argument alleging he has intellectual disabilities that would preclude him from execution, should jurors opt to recommend the death penalty.

Criminal proceedings were previously suspended for six months in 2017 when Felix's attorneys, John Dolan and Jacob Devane, sought to have him found mentally incompetent to stand trial.

They argued he suffers from "traumatic amnesia'' and has no memory of the shooting, preventing him from contributing to an adequate defense, but Riverside County Superior Court Judge Anthony R. Villalobos ruled in late 2017 that Felix was competent enough to assist his attorneys.

Last year, his attorneys argued that intellectual deficiencies indicated it would be cruel and unusual punishment to execute him, an argument stemming from the 2002 Atkins v. Virginia case, which led to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that executing a defendant with intellectual disabilities violates the Eighth Amendment.

Following a bench trial featuring 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 last week.

Dolan indicated that he would file another appeal with the California Supreme Court.

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 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.

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