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Penalty phase begins in trial of convicted cop-killer

Penalty phase begins in trial of convict

INDIO, Calif.- - Jurors heard testimony Tuesday as the penalty phase began in the the trial for a 28-year-old man who sprayed bullets from an AR-15 rifle at Palm Springs police officers standing outside his family's home, killing two.

John Hernandez Felix faces a possible death sentence for the October 8, 2016, killings of Officer Jose Gilbert Vega, 63, and Officer Lesley Zerebny, 27. On top of first-degree murder, jurors Monday also convicted Felix of six counts of attempted murder, stemming from the shots he fired at the other officers outside the home in the 2700 block of Cypress Avenue, where they had gone in response to a domestic disturbance call.

During the penalty phase, jurors will be asked to recommend whether Felix should be sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

"Your verdicts of guilt, no one is questioning, does not equal the punishment. You still have things to consider and you still have work to do," Defense Attorney Jacob Devane said in court today.

Five of the six officers who responded to the shooting testified today, describing the harrowing moments they could have lost their lives. Three of those officers are now medically retired from police work in direct relation to the shooting

Officer Jeffrey Burton stayed on scene despite having been shot twice.

"Sadness, anger, frustration. you name it, I was feeling it. Still to this day," Burton said.

 

 

The officers shared the post-traumatic street they are still suffering from after the shooting. Some said they burst into spouts of anger from time to time, still upset and unable to understand why the shooting happened or why it was Vega and Zerebny and not them.

 

 

Officer Byron Farley  said on the stand, "I should have taken that call. i should have been there sooner."

 

 

At the verdict reading on Monday, Britta Kling, Lesley Zerebny's sister, told News Channel 3 the officers' testimony has been the hardest to hear throughout this trial. 

"I think hearing the officers testify that day and seeing their reaction to being there firsthand, that was really difficult because you can tell that there's a love there for both Gil and Leslsey and seeing them break down and thier emotions come out was really bad," Kling said.

A standout moment, Zerebny's toddler daughter Cora broke down in tears in the courtroom when a photo of her mom was shown. Zerebny was a new mom at the time of the shooting.

 

 

One of the officers testified about how Cora was born just 7 weeks apart from his daughter. Photos were shown of the two infants together seen wearing shirts with hearts and "Thin Blue Line" memorial symbols.

Wednesday morning, Zerebny family members are expected to testify as are Felix's relatives. News Channel 3's Jake Ingrassia will be in courtroom, check out @JakeKESQ on twitter for live tweets.

 

 

On Monday, 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.

In addition to the murder and attempted murder charges, jurors also convicted Felix of unlawful possession of an assault weapon, unlawful weapon possession by a prohibited person and unlawful possession of ammunition, while rejecting allegations that Felix was wearing body armor during the shooting.

They also found true special-circumstance allegations of murder of a peace officer and multiple murders.

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 closing 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.

"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 aforethought, 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.


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