Former Priest Faces Dismissal of Murder Appeal

(CN) – The appeal for former Catholic priest John Feit, convicted last year of murdering his former parishioner nearly 60 years ago, could be thrown out before any arguments supporting his decades-long claim of innocence are developed in court because a brief hasn’t yet been filed.   

John Feit leaves the courtroom during a break in his trial for the murder of Irene Garza on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, at the Hidalgo County Courthouse in Edinburg, Texas.
(Nathan Lambrecht/The Monitor/Pool)

A Hidalgo County jury sentenced Feit to life in prison last December, rejecting his claim that he had nothing to do with the Easter weekend 1960 suffocation death of the popular schoolteacher Irene Garza, a former Miss South Texas.

Testimony at Feit’s seven-day trial in Edinburg centered around an alleged 57-year-old Catholic Church-led conspiracy blamed for covering up Garza’s murder, one of the nation’s oldest cases brought to trial.

Feit, long suspected in Garza’s slaying, removed his hearing aid and did not face jurors as Hidalgo County Judge Luis Singleterry delivered his life sentence. He remained emotionless throughout trial, taking notes, chewing gum and sipping from a Styrofoam cup at times.

He declined to testify in his own defense.

O. Rene Flores, Feit’s lead defense attorney, filed a notice of appeal with Texas’ 13th Court of Appeals in January. He had been granted two extensions in May and August, but a Nov. 21 deadline passed without any filings on Feit’s behalf.

“To date, said brief has not been filed,” court clerk Dorian Ramirez wrote in a letter dated Wednesday. The appeals court confirmed on Thursday that a brief still had not been received.

Flores has 10 days to file paperwork with the court or face a hearing in Hidalgo County where the appeal could be dropped. His notice of appeal 10 months ago did not indicate what issues would be challenged post-trial and Flores did not respond to a request for comment Thursday morning.

“I think we’re solid,” prosecutor Michael Garza said at a news conference after trial when asked about a possible defense appeal. Ted Hake, a prosecutor in the appellate division of the Hidalgo County district attorney’s office, did not immediately respond Thursday to an email seeking comment.

Formerly of Scottsdale, Arizona, Feit, who turned 86 last Saturday, was transferred earlier this year to the Wallace Pack Unit, a medium-security prison just outside the city limits of Navasota, Texas. About 1,100 offenders are housed at the prison, which offers a 12-bed infirmary, a wheelchair accessible unit and other medical services to accommodate elderly inmates.

The former priest suffers from various illnesses, including stage 3 kidney disease, bladder cancer, spinal stenosis and diabetes, his attorneys have said in court documents. Feit left the priesthood in the early 1970s after church leaders banished him to monasteries in Iowa and Missouri and he married and had three children and grandchildren.

He has denied Courthouse News’ request for an interview.

None of Feit’s family members were in court for last year’s trial. But Hidalgo County records obtained by Courthouse News show more than a dozen jailhouse visits from his wife, children and brother made from April 2016 through June 2017.

Feit spent a total of 648 days awaiting trial in Hidalgo County after his extradition to Texas in March 2016, costing taxpayers approximately $34,900.

The closing of Feit’s appeal would be the final chapter in a half century-old crime that shook residents of the predominately Catholic Rio Grande Valley, a four-county region along the Texas-Mexico border.

Prosecutors called Feit a “murderous animal” with a depraved heart. On Holy Saturday 1960 he pulled the 25-year-old elementary schoolteacher by the arm out of a confessional at Sacred Heart Church, attacked her inside the church’s rectory next door and gagged her with a cellophane bag in a bathtub, according to trial testimony.

Feit, then a 27-year-old visiting priest, fondled Garza’s breasts before she spoke her last words: “I cannot breathe, I cannot breathe,” a former monk, Dale Tacheny, testified. Tacheny said Feit confessed to the murder three years after he did it while the two were at a Trappist monastery in Ava, Missouri.

“Instead of praying for her soul, he preyed for a victim,” prosecutor Garza told jurors before they deliberated the sentence.

Jurors heard from 22 prosecution witnesses, saw graphic autopsy photos and reviewed evidence almost 60 years old. Evidence included a faded green Kodak slide viewer with a long cord found at the crime scene that Garza said could have been used to tie the victim up.

Prosecutors built the state’s case at trial through stories of three other South Texas women whom Feit either allegedly attacked in church, or had disturbing interactions with. They said Feit had a penchant for attacking young women in high heels from behind while they prayed in church.

Feit has always maintained his innocence in the killing, but authorities stepped up efforts to solve the notorious cold-case in the early 2000s, when nationwide revelations about priestly abuse sparked renewed attention to Irene Garza’s unsolved murder.

Feit will not be parole eligible until 2024 when he is 92.

Fallout from the church’s sex abuse scandal continued Wednesday after police raided the Catholic headquarters in Houston looking for records on the Rev. Manuel LaRosa-Lopez.

LaRosa-Lopez, 61, turned himself into Conroe police on Sept. 11 shortly after a man and a woman filed police reports alleging he had sexually abused them in 1999 and 2000 when they were minors.

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