Courtroom Environment of 57-Year-Old Murder Case
EDINBURG – An 84-year-old former priest appeared before a jury in a Hidalgo County courtroom for the first day of his murder trial.
John Feit is accused of killing Irene Garza on Easter weekend 1960.
Opening arguments were standard.
Prosecutors said Feit is guilty, defense attorneys say he’s not. But it didn’t take long for sparks to fly thanks to a former KRGV reporter.
The former-priest-turned-murder suspect used a walker for support as he arrived at the courtroom.
A picture, shown in the court, shows a young Feit sitting in the very same 92nd District Courtroom back in the early 60s when he was charged with the aggravated assault of a young woman named America Guerra.
This time, the former priest is back in the courtroom for the 1960 murder of another young woman.
“Irene Garza went into a church trusting that her soul would be saved, but it was suffocated,” said Hidalgo County Assistant District Attorney Michael Garza.
Garza died before the attorneys involved in the trial were born.
She was killed in April of 1960 – raped and suffocated – after attending Easter weekend confession at McAllen’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
Former KRGV anchor Darrell Davis reported on Feit’s legal troubles in the 60s and testified about off-the-record conversations he had with the district attorney at the time.
According to Davis, the then district attorney, late Robert Lattimore, said Feit “would not be prosecuted for the murder because the church was going to put him away for the rest of his life.”
“He said he knew that John Feit had committed the murder and the church knew he had committed the murder, but that a deal had been made to avoid the sensitivity or the sensationalism of a trial of a priest killing Irene Garza,” Davis testified.
Defense attorneys tried to prevent jurors from hearing Davis’ testimony, but the judge ruled against their motion.
The jury also heard from five other witnesses Thursday on the state’s behalf, including Irene Garza’s god-sister, who broke into tears on the stand.
“I was there every day until they found her,” Sylvia Acevedo-Stern said on the stand.
Acevedo-Stern said although most people knew the young woman as a former McAllen beauty queen and second-grade teacher who was killed, she held a close relationship with her as her god-sister.
“I was in the house when her purse was brought to the house. I was also there when the shoe was brought to the house,” said Acevedo-Stern.
In court, prosecutors attempted to tap into the jury’s emotions.
“You use that common sense in your heart, open your eyes and your heart and find John Feit guilty of murder,” said Michael Garza.
Shortly after, the defense counsel reminded the jury that their duty is to evaluate the evidence and facts presented.
“I disagree with Mr. Garza. The findings of facts you make may hurt your heart and while I, too, ask you to bring common sense into the courtroom, do not let your heart make those findings,” said defense attorney Rene Flores.
Jurors are learning what the city of McAllen used to look like and how investigative procedures have changed.
The prosecution explained today’s investigative procedures are very different than they were 60 years ago. They talked about investigators who help evidence in one hand and cigarettes in another while not wearing gloves and no DNA testing.
Feit’s defense agreed that it was a different time. Cases were handled differently, but the facts are facts.
Flores told the jury there weren’t enough facts then and there aren’t enough facts now to convict Feit of murder.
“Find the facts and once you do, you’ll see John Feit is not guilty,” said Flores to the jury.
Feit was very solemn during his first day in court, pleading not guilty at the start of the trial. He was talkative and animated during other hearings.
Some members of Irene’s family were present, her cousins Lynda de la Vina and Noemi Siegler. They told CHANNEL 5 NEWS that their hands trembled at the start of the day, but were still able to find the strength to attend the trial. They want to see justice.
The jury consisted of a panel of five men, seven women, and three women as alternates. It’s a young jury, most in their 30s and 40s. The group was very attentive, sitting up and moving to make sure they saw everything that was being presented in the courtroom.
The courtroom itself was quiet – very quiet.
Courtroom watchers occasionally laughed during some of the questionings of Davis.
Everyone was listening to every word presented. People were going in and out of the courtroom, just wanting to listen in on the case that has taken 57 years to bring to trial.
Other witnesses that took the stand Thursday included a doctor’s wife and a retired priest.
The retired priest had worked with Irene and the woman was a family friend. Both were moved to tears on the stand, recalling Irene’s character.
None of Feit’s family members were in court for his first day of trial. He is married and has three children, as well as grandchildren.
Seven hours after he arrived at court, Feit once again leaned against his walker and left the courtroom.
Testimony will continue Friday. CHANNEL 5 NEWS will bring you everything that happens during the trial.