EDINBURG, Texas (CN) — A Texas jury convicted former Catholic priest John Feit of murder Thursday evening for the Easter weekend 1960 killing of schoolteacher Irene Garza, closing a case that took 57 years to bring to trial and featured allegations of a church cover-up.
The seven-woman, five-man jury deliberated for just over six hours before rejecting Feit’s decades-old claim that he had nothing to do with the disappearance and suffocation of the 25-year-old McAllen schoolteacher and former Miss South Texas.
Feit, 85, sat emotionless as the verdict was read at 8:17 p.m. in the same courtroom where he pleaded no-contest in 1962 for attacking another South Texas woman, 20-year-old college student Maria America Guerra. Feit was fined $500, but served no jail time in that case.
He will be sentenced by a jury Friday morning for first-degree murder, followed by a victim impact statement expected from her nephew.
“John Feit was a wolf in priest’s clothing waiting to attack. He attacked once and then he caught his prey,” Hidalgo County Assistant District Attorney Michael Garza said during closing arguments. “Find John Feit guilty of murder by malice of forethought.”
Prosecutors painted a sinister portrait of Feit as a “depraved” priest with a “mischievous heart,” whom the Catholic Church protected to avoid institutional scandal. The state presented a pattern of “creepy” behavior, including Feit’s penchant for attacking young women wearing high-heeled shoes from behind.
It was Holy Saturday 1960 when Feit pulled Irene by the arm out of a confessional at McAllen’s Sacred Heart Church. He took her to the church rectory next door, where he assaulted, bound and gagged her with a cellophane bag and suffocated her in a bathtub.
Feit, then a 27-year-old visiting priest, fondled her breasts before she spoke her last words: “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” a former monk, Dale Tacheny, testified this week. Tacheny said Feit confessed to the murder to him three years after he did it.
Defense attorney O. Rene Flores said the state’s case amounted to “stories told over time” and asked jurors to look at the evidence “to make a finding of fact.”
Feit’s three court-appointed attorneys spent the last six days of trial trying to raise reasonable doubt – from a foot impression found at the canal bank where Irene was discovered that did not belong to Feit – to a timeline inconsistent with investigations throughout the decades.
“Perhaps back then the evidence was as weak as it is now,” Flores said. “What about all the other people at the pastoral house? None of them ever mentioned hearing or seeing a man carrying a body down the hall, or a struggle.”
Feit, late of Scottsdale, Arizona, declined to testify on his own behalf, a decision he said Wednesday was “kind of between a rock and a hard place.” None of his family members were in court for the trial. Feit, who left the priesthood under a cloud of suspicion in the early 1970s, is married with three children and several grandchildren.
Jurors heard from 22 prosecution witnesses during five full days of testimony, saw graphic autopsy photos and reviewed evidence almost 60 years old. Evidence included a faded green Kodak slide viewer with a long, thin black cord that prosecutor Garza said could have been used to “tie her up.”
“Who does it belong to? John Feit,” Garza said.
Feit’s handwritten letter to authorities admitting the slide viewer was his was shown to the jury and a forensic document examiner testified to its authenticity.
Prosecutor Garza also cited an internal church letter dated Oct. 1, 1960 that he said highlighted the Catholic Church’s concern with avoiding bad publicity, and was devoid of any concern for Irene or her family.
Irene’s family members embraced the prosecutors, including District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez, after the verdict was read.
Feit’s 2016 arrest came after Rodriguez was elected in 2014 after a heated campaign in which Rodriguez blasted longtime incumbent District Attorney Rene Guerra as a roadblock to the former priest’s prosecution. Feit was the prime suspect for almost six decades. Irene’s family doggedly pursued “Justice for Irene” and blamed Guerra for mishandling a 2004 grand jury investigation.
Guerra also came under fire in the early 2000s when he told a newspaper that the murder would be solved “if you believe that pigs can fly.”
Guerra today is campaigning to reclaim his post that he held for 32 years.
“Pigs are flying tonight,” said Irene’s cousin, Lynda de la Viña. “He’ll never stick his finger in my face and tell me this is a case about old people and that people don’t care and tell me, ‘when pigs fly.’ We’ve spoken truth to power and to the former political leaders of Hidalgo County.”
Another relative, Noemi Ponce Sigler described herself as “stunned” to hear the verdict.
“Justice was served,” Sigler said. “Now she can rest. Her story has been told and nobody can ever deny it anymore. All these emotions that I’ve been keeping in, they just surfaced. … It’s been such a long, long, long journey.”
Feit’s attorneys declined to comment and said their client “doesn’t have any comment.”
Garza ending his closing argument by asking jurors to send a message to the community.
“It’s time to heal. We won’t tolerate a cover-up.”
He also invoked memories of Irene’s father, Nicolas Garza, who he said was unable to protect his daughter.
“The system of justice that he believed in sold her out, sold him out. The church that he believed in, that he sought to save his soul, betrayed him,” Garza said.
Feit faces up to 99 years in prison.