EDINBURG, Texas (CN) – The former Catholic priest charged with the 1960 murder of a South Texas beauty queen could find out this week if his trial will be moved out of the county where his attorneys claim an impartial jury is impossible to find.
Hidalgo County Judge Luis Singleterry said he would rule this week on 84-year-old John Feit’s motion to change venue. The ex-priest, who has pleaded not guilty, will stand trial on Sept. 11 if his motion is denied, the judge said at a May 24 hearing.
Prosecutors say there is no evidence to support Feit’s claim that 57 years of intermittent media coverage poisoned the jury pool. They rejected a defense expert’s claim that a telephone survey suggested 70 percent of potential jurors believed Feit to be guilty.
“The defendant has not proven that this is one of the rare and extreme cases for which a presumption of prejudice is warranted,” prosecutors said in court documents. “The time has come for the defendant to stand trial for the murder of Irene Garza. Hidalgo County is the proper county of venue.”
Now frail and using a walker in court appearances, Feit was a 27-year-old priest in McAllen when Garza’s half-clothed body was discovered in a canal days after she was last seen going to confession at Sacred Heart Church. He became the prime suspect almost immediately after the slaying of the 25-year-old onetime Miss All South Texas Sweetheart stunned the community.
An autopsy determined that Garza had been beaten, suffocated and raped while unconscious on April 16, 1960, the day before Easter.
Feit has always denied involvement, but suspicion continued to hound the now-married father and grandfather, who was extradited from Scottsdale, Arizona last year where he had been living. A Hidalgo County grand jury charged him with murder by asphyxiation on Feb. 10, 2016.
“This whole thing makes no sense to me because the crime in question took place in 1960,” Feit told a judge at his initial arraignment in Arizona the day after police arrested him.
He dropped his extradition battle a month later and has been in the Hidalgo County Jail infirmary since March 2016.
Feit acknowledged in the early days of the investigation that a Kodak slide viewer found near Garza’s body belonged to him. More evidence came to light in 2002 when two former priests testified in a Texas Rangers examination that Feit had confessed to the killing.
A Hidalgo County grand jury in 2004 refused to indict Feit, in an investigation that was clouded by assertions from Garza’s family that then-District Attorney Rene Guerra failed to present enough evidence.
Ten years later, in a Democratic primary in March 2014, Guerra, Texas’ second-longest serving district attorney, was voted out of office after 32 years. Garza’s cold case and Guerra’s handling of the grand jury probe took center stage in the contentious election.
Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez, who promised to re-examine the murder, said after Feit’s indictment that “new facts and evidence” were uncovered during the most recent investigation, but declined to go into detail.
Guerra announced last week that he would challenge Rodriguez in the 2018 district attorney’s race, and seek his old job back.
Feit faced trial in 1961 after a venue change to Austin, for assault with intent to rape a 20-year-old South Texas woman at a nearby church, but it hung a jury. The woman escaped the assault, reportedly by biting her attacker’s finger when he tried to cover her faced with a rag.
Feit pleaded no-contest to a lesser charge of aggravated assault in that case and was fined $500 before a second trial set to begin the following year in Hidalgo County.
He faces up to 99 years in prison if convicted of Garza’s murder.