EDINBURG, Texas (CN) — A state judge has delayed the April trial of the former Catholic priest charged with the 1960 murder of a South Texas beauty queen, and will hear arguments next month that a “media frenzy” has poisoned the jury pool.
O. Rene Flores and Ricardo Flores, representing 84-year-old John Feit, filed a 34-page memorandum last week asking to move Feit’s case out of Hidalgo County. They argued that the “inflammatory nature of the media coverage” in the past 57 years has made it impossible for him to receive a fair trial.
On Wednesday, Hidalgo County Judge Luis Singleterry agreed that the ex-priest is entitled to a hearing and set a May 17 court date. He also scrubbed the original April 24 trial date.
“The media’s reporting of this case has created an irreversible fog of pretrial publicity,” Feit’s attorneys said in the motion to change venue. “The extent and nature of the publicity surrounding Feit’s case make it nearly impossible for Feit to receive a fair and impartial trial in the Rio Grande Valley.”
Now frail and using a walker in courtroom appearances, Feit was a 27-year-old priest in McAllen when he became the prime suspect soon after Irene Garza’s half-clothed body was found in an irrigation canal. She had last been seen going to confession at Sacred Heart Church.
An autopsy determined that the 25-year-old elementary schoolteacher and former Miss All South Texas Sweetheart had been beaten, suffocated and raped while unconscious on the day before Easter more than a half century ago.
“As the case unfolded, the community of McAllen, Texas became convinced defendant Feit was involved and that local authorities entered into some sort of agreement with the Catholic Church to ‘cover up’ his involvement,” the April 4 motion to change venue states. “Nearly every potential juror in Hidalgo County has prejudged defendant Feit or knows and talks to someone who has.”
The motion to change venue is accompanied by a memorandum in support of the motion.
The attorneys enclosed results of a survey of potential jurors in the county that showed 69 percent of those who recognized the case believe Feit is guilty.
Feit was flown from his home in Arizona to face murder charges in South Texas in February and has been in the Hidalgo County Jail infirmary since then. The indictment charges him with murder by asphyxiation.
Feit has always denied involvement in the crime but acknowledged that a Kodak photographic slide viewer found near Garza’s body belonged to him.
In 1960, the judge overseeing Feit’s criminal case for attempting to rape a different South Texas woman around the time of Garza’s disappearance moved the case out of Hidalgo County due to “unusual publicity and notoriety.”
According to Feit’s new motion for change of venue, the media in 1960 drew parallels between the attack upon that woman and Garza’s disappearance, “heralding the charges against Feit as evidence of his alleged guilt.”
That case was moved to Travis County, but Feit’s attorneys still say in their filing that “the transfer did nothing to quell the media frenzy or the community’s speculation.”
Feit ended up pleading guilty to assault in that case.
He has pleaded not guilty to murdering Garza. He faces up to 99 years in prison if convicted.