INDIO – Testimony will continue today to determine whether a 27-year-old ex-con charged with the ambush killings of two Palm Springs police officers is competent to stand trial even though his lawyers allege he is suffering from “traumatic amnesia,” leaving him with no memory of last fall’s shooting and preventing him from assisting in his defense.
John Hernandez Felix is accused of fatally shooting veteran training Officer Jose Gilbert Vega, 63, and rookie Officer Lesley Zerebny, 27, last Oct. 8. Criminal proceedings against him have been suspended since May after his attorneys declared doubts regarding his competence.
To obtain a mental incompetency finding from a judge, Felix’s attorneys need to provide “substantial evidence” that their client, who’s being held without bail, does not understand the nature of the criminal proceedings against him and cannot assist them in his defense.
Dr. Hilda Chalgujian, a neuropsychologist, testified Monday that she believes that Felix’s amnesia is “legitimate.” She testified that he told her that he does not recall shooting anyone, though he remembers what brought the officers to his home and recalls his arrest following a 12-hour standoff. However, she conceded during questioning by the prosecution that Felix could be inventing the memory lapse.
She also said claims of traumatic amnesia were more common in suspects of violent crimes, particularly homicides and attempted homicides, and she could not recall an instance during her career when traumatic amnesia affected the suspect, rather than the victim, of a violent crime.
However, she said that Felix’s “sub-average intelligence” and documented substance abuse could have contributed to poor memory.
Assistant district attorney Michelle Paradise questioned Chalgujian on her association with defense attorney John Dolan’s California Desert Trial Academy, an Indio-based school where he serves as dean. In addition to practicing psychology for about 30 years, Chalgujian is a fourth-year law student at the academy and 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.
Paradise estimated that Chalgujian violated around “75 percent” of the American Psychological Association’s code of ethics in her evaluation of Felix.
Though Chalgujian said Felix’s claimed memory loss could affect his competency, two other psychologists, Drs. William H. Jones and Michael Kania, testified that they felt he was 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.
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 is accused of donning body armor and firing armor-piercing rounds from an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, specifically targeted police.
“This individual knew what he was doing. His actions were deliberate. He attacked these officers for no other reason than they were there, answering a call for service,” Hestrin said when the charges were announced last fall.
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 for 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.