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.
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.