Obstacles abound in prosecution of Texas priest in cold case
HOUSTON >> Prosecutors face a tough road in their case against a former priest accused this week in the killing of a young Texas teacher and beauty queen nearly 56 years ago, according to legal experts.
John Bernard Feit, 83, remained in custody Friday in Phoenix following his indictment in South Texas' Hidalgo County for the murder of 25-year-old Irene Garza.
Feit had been considered a suspect in the past, and two fellow priests told authorities he confessed to them. But like many cold cases, this one will pose special difficulties stemming from decades-old evidence, a lack of DNA and the long delay in bringing charges.
"These are challenges that are not unsurmountable, but they are going to be looked at very carefully by the defense," said Philip Hilder, a Houston criminal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor.
Authorities allege the then-27-year-old Feit killed Garza on April 16, 1960, after hearing her confession at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, where he was a priest.
Her body was found days later. An autopsy determined Garza, who was named Miss All South Texas Sweetheart 1958, had been raped while unconscious and was beaten and suffocated.
Feit's arrest Tuesday followed other investigations over the years, including a grand jury probe in 2004 that concluded there was insufficient evidence to charge him.
"We thought the whole thing was settled. This has been going on for 50 years now," said Matthias Feit, John Feit's 92-year-old brother.
Matthias Feit, from Phoenix, said he did not know if his sibling had hired an attorney. Court records in Arizona did not list a lawyer for him.
John Feit has said he plans to fight extradition to Texas. While extradition is the first problem prosecutors will face, it probably will not be the most difficult one.
Hilder said prosecutors will have to confront concerns about the age of the evidence and how well it has been maintained. Some witnesses might be dead, and others may have dim memories.
Houston criminal defense attorney Grant Scheiner said the long delay in filing charges could raise concerns about whether the elderly Feit will be physically and mentally able to help in his defense.
"At some point, a case can become so old that it may be nearly impossible for a defendant to be able to put on a competent defense," he said.
Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez has declined to comment on what evidence was presented to the grand jury, saying in a statement that authorities would not elaborate until after the extradition process.
Rene Guerra, the former Hidalgo County district attorney who investigated the murder but never brought charges, said the lack of DNA evidence could also be a stumbling block.
"There's no DNA or anything like that we were aware of where they can say, 'Feit did it,'" Guerra, who was district attorney for more than 30 years before losing re-election in 2014, said in a telephone interview. Now retired, he lives in Edinburg, just north of McAllen.
When Guerra was still in office, Garza's family members and friends criticized his handling of the case, including the grand jury probe that failed to obtain an indictment. The case became an issue in the 2014 district attorney's race. Rodriguez promised that if elected, he would re-examine the case.
Scheiner said Feit's attorneys could point to the 2004 grand jury decision and argue that the new charge was brought "more for political expediency than the pursuit of justice."
Guerra maintains his prosecutors "served justice" when they took the case to a grand jury in 2004. He said all he wants now is a fair trial.
"I just want Hidalgo County justice to be done the right way," he said.
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