EDINBURG, Texas (CN) – A state judge declined Wednesday to move the trial of a former Catholic priest charged with the 1960 murder of a South Texas beauty queen outside of the county where the crime occurred.
Jurors in Hidalgo County will decide the fate of 84-year-old John Feit more than 57 years after the half-clothed body of Irene Garza was found dumped in an irrigation canal days after she was last seen going to confession.
Hidalgo County Judge Luis Singleterry set a Sept. 11 trial date and a final pre-trial hearing on July 19 for the ex-priest, who has pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors insisted that there was no evidence to support Feit’s argument 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.
In a one-page order filed Wednesday morning, Judge Singleterry denied the motion to change venue filed by Feit’s court-appointed attorneys in April.
“The defendant has failed to demonstrate the existence of such prejudice in the community that the likelihood of obtaining a fair and impartial jury trial is doubtful,” the judge said in his ruling.
Now frail and using a walker in court appearances, Feit was a 27-year-old priest in McAllen when Garza’s body was discovered in a canal days after giving confession at Sacred Heart Church. He became the prime suspect almost immediately after the slaying of the 25-year-old schoolteacher and 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, Ariz., 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 month 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 face 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.