In Failing Health, Former Catholic Priest Appeals Murder Conviction

John Feit leaves the courtroom during a break in his murder trial on Nov. 30, 2017, in Edinburg, Texas. (Nathan Lambrecht/The Monitor/Pool via AP)

EDINBURG, Texas (CN) – A former Catholic priest convicted two years ago of murder in the 1960 death of a South Texas schoolteacher is asking a state appellate court for a new trial based largely on hearsay claims from witness testimony.

In a 152-page filing made public on Friday, an attorney for John Feit, 87, urged the 13th Court of Appeals to reverse his conviction, arguing 11 points of error to support the former priest’s decades-old claim that he had nothing to do with the Easter weekend 1960 suffocation death of Irene Garza, an elementary schoolteacher and 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.

“There were no eye witnesses to corroborate the state’s theory that appellant was responsible,” defense attorney O. Rene Flores wrote in the brief. “There was no physical, scientific, or forensic evidence obtained in the 56 years since the disappearance and murder of Irene Garza that somehow linked appellant to this offense.”

According to Flores, jurors were fed hearsay statements from the onset of the trial and should not have heard testimony from Dale Tacheny, a former monk and key prosecution witness who claimed Feit confessed to murdering a woman – his former parishioner – while the two were at a Trappist monastery in Ava, Missouri in 1963.

On the first day of trial, former TV news reporter turned attorney Darryl Davis testified that Feit escaped justice because prosecutors in the 1960s cut a deal with the Catholic Church: Feit would not be prosecuted for Garza’s murder if he agreed to plead no-contest in a case involving 20-year-old college student Maria America Guerra.

Guerra, who did not testify during trial because of health issues, was attacked by Feit from behind as she knelt to pray in church, prosecutors said. Feit pleaded no-contest in 1962 to a reduced charge of aggravated assault in that case after a trial ended in a hung jury the year before.

While Davis’ account of the conversation he claimed to have had with former Hidalgo County District Attorney Robert Lattimore should not have been allowed, the terms of that 1962 plea bargain should be specifically enforced because it was induced by the promise not to prosecute Feit for Garza’s murder, Flores argued.

Hidalgo County Judge Luis Singleterry rejected a defense request to dismiss the case on those grounds, telling attorneys during trial that he didn’t have any reason to believe a plea bargain existed and that it was up to the jury to decide.

Dale Tacheny wipes away a tear while testifying in John Feit’s murder trial. (Nathan Lambrecht/The Monitor/Pool via AP)

Flores also claims hearsay violations about three other state witnesses, including former Dallas Morning News reporter Bruce Egerton, retired San Antonio police investigator George Saidler and Ana Maria Cavazos Hollingsworth, a friend of Garza’s who testified to a conversation the two had on the week of the murder about Feit supposedly pulling Garza out of confession.

“All of these statements attributed to Irene Garza were hearsay without any exception,” Feit’s attorney says.

But perhaps one of the more contentious claims in the 36,100-word brief is the argument that Tacheny’s testimony was protected under the priest penitent privilege doctrine, meaning jurors should not have heard details of an alleged confession given to him confidentially in his capacity as a spiritual advisor.

“There is thus no dispute Tacheny was ‘practicing as a minister of the gospel, priest . . . or other person serving in a similar capacity for an organized religion’ when the alleged confession was made,” Flores wrote in the brief.

Terence McKiernan, president of the watchdog group BishopsAccountability.org who attended Feit’s trial in Edinburg, said there are problems with Feit’s argument. There’s no penitent privilege, he said, because Tacheny was merely responsible for assessing Feit’s readiness as a candidate for joining his religious order, the Trappists.

“I think it’s pretty clear that those were simply conversations and sacrament of penance was not happening during those conversations,” McKiernan said in an interview Friday. “Although he did have apparently these numerous, lengthy conversations with Feit, including allegedly about her murder, it’s not at all clear that those were actual confessions in the canonical, Catholic sense of the term.”

Described by officials at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice on Monday as being “in poor health,” Feit now requires a geriatric facility after nearly two years in a state prison. In October, the former Catholic priest was transferred to the Hospital Galveston facility and later returned to his assigned unit in Huntsville, Texas, prison officials said.

Former priest John Feit sits in court on Sept. 11, 2017, in Edinburg Texas. (CNS Photo/Erik De La Garza)

He also spent the first week of December at the TDCJ’s only hospital unit in Galveston for an unspecified treatment. Officials said he suffered a cardiovascular problem in June 2018, but could not elaborate on the nature of his most recent hospital stays.

Feit’s attorneys have said in court documents that he suffered from stage-three kidney disease, bladder cancer, spinal stenosis and diabetes.

His long expected appeal comes after months of delays, partly due to a court reporter’s claim that transcripts from the case were lost. According to an affidavit filed by court reporter Julian Aldrette, his hard drive containing hearings from 2016 “was dropped and damaged,” making him unable to produce transcripts of any pretrial hearings from the year of Feit’s arrest and extradition to Hidalgo County.

Appeals courts use transcripts to review the judge’s rulings and examine the official record of a proceeding.

The court reporter’s lost transcripts caused the appeal to be halted in April. But a hearing in Hidalgo County two months later resulted in an agreed order after hearing transcripts were found.

Feit’s brief was filed Monday but because it was late and 21,000 words over limit, was not made publicly available until after the appellate court granted a motion to accept it.

His attorney also argued that statements made by Cleotilde “Tilley” Sanchez, a former Sacred Heart Church cook, and witness Beatrice Castro Garcia were improperly allowed during the guilt-innocence stage because they were elicited to prove malice aforethought.

Sanchez told jurors that she never forgot an ominous comment Feit made to other priests about making her “disappear” behind a closed cellar door. She also said that shortly after the attack on Maria Guerra, a familiar voice warned her in a phone call: “Tilley, you’re next honey.”

Garcia testified that Feit approached her around the same time and said: “I’d love to take a picture of you in a black dress by the cemetery.”

Prosecutors called the former priest 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.

During the week-long trial in December 2017, 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, which Feit admitted in a handwritten letter to authorities belonged to him.

An internal church letter was also revealed to jurors connecting the Catholic Church and local authorities to a plan to detract attention away from Feit in order to avoid the potential scandal to it as an institution.

Feit, who left the priesthood in the early 1970s after church leaders banished him to monasteries in Iowa and Missouri, has always maintained his innocence in the killing. Formerly of Scottsdale, Arizona, Feit married and had three children and several grandchildren, none of whom were in court for his trial.

Feit will not be parole eligible until 2024 when he is 92. His brother, Matthias Albert Feit, who served as a Catholic priest for over 65 years, died in March at age 95.

Garza’s only sister also died this year.

The prosecutor and district attorney in the case did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment.

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