EDINBURG — A former priest could not receive a fair trial in Hidalgo County because of the biased media coverage of his case.
The attorney for a former priest accused of killing a McAllen schoolteacher doesn’t believe his client can get a fair trial in HidalgoCounty, citing among some of his reasons, the overflow of coverage into the case that spans nearly 60 years.
O. Rene Flores, a criminal defense attorney based in Edinburg, and the man who has been by John Bernard Feit’s side since before he opted to waive his extradition from Arizona to HidalgoCounty, formally filed a motion to have the trial’s venue changed, arguing that his client will not receive a fair trial in the county.
Flores on Tuesday filed a memorandum to the court containing more than 700 pages of documented evidence in support of his argument that the former priest has been over covered by local, state, national and international media.
The 83-year-old man is accused of killing Irene Garza, a McAllen schoolteacher and beauty queen in the 60s when he worked as a priest in the Valley.
The 25-year-old woman was last seen April 16, 1960, going to confession at the Sacred Heart church in McAllen; authorities found her lifeless body five days later in a canal.
During the initial investigation, officers linked Feit to Garza’s death after finding evidence and placing him at the church the night she disappeared. Feit, however, was never charged in the case at the time and he was eventually moved out of state by the church, documents show.
Flores in his opening argument for the change of venue cites an Oliver Wendell Holmes quote; Holmes, an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 1900s, said our legal system derives conclusions from the evidence at hand, and not by any outside influence, whether public or private.
Flores argues that this very crucial tenant is at risk of being violated if the trial were to remain in the county.
“The murder of Irene Garza has been the subject of nearly 60 years of extensive, biased media coverage. Described as ‘the case that shook a city,’ reporters have condemned Feit as a murderer, claiming that he avoided prosecution only because of an alleged cover-up orchestrated by the Catholic Church,” the memo reads.
Flores claims that up to more than 75 percent of potential Hidalgo County jurors have been exposed to unsubstantiated rumors and evidence of Feit’s alleged guilt — much of which would be inadmissible in court — and he claims another 69 percent of those jurors already believe Feit to be guilty, the memo states.
“ The pervasive, prejudicial, and inflammatory nature of the media coverage thus makes a change of venue necessary to preserve Feit’s constitutional right to a fair and impartial trial,” Flores states in the memo.
Flores in his argument highlights the publicity coverage the case received even back in 1960, when Garza was first reported missing.
“ The rumors only increased when Feit was charged with aggravated assault for allegedly attempting to rape Maria America Guerra near the time of Garza’s disappearance, heralding the charges against Feit as evidence of his alleged guilt,” the memo reads. “In fact there was such ‘tremendous’ coverage… by the press, television, and radio in this county and in adjoining counties, that the honorable Judge ( ) McWhorter, of the 92nd District Court took judicial notice of the ‘unusual publicity and notoriety’ and held that Feit could not receive a fair and impartial trial on the aggravated assault charge in Hidalgo County or any adjoining counties.”
Flores claims, with more than 700 documents of the media published in the years of the initial arrest and the subsequent inquiries into the case, that the public’s interest in it has also has grown throughout the years.
Also attached to the motion was a survey Flores had conducted to determine any biases that may exist in preparation for the trial.
After surveying more than 300 HidalgoCounty residents, from 60,000 calls made, Flores argues that the survey revealed widespread knowledge of Feit’s case in more than 76 percent of the respondents, and another nearly 70 percent of respondents already believed Feit was guilty of killing Garza, the document shows.
The decision to file the change of venue motion was looked at carefully, Flores said, and had been something he was considering for some time.
The attorney does not know when the two sides will take a look at the motion, or when 92nd state District Court Judge Luis Singleterry would rule on it, but said he filed it to give his client the best chance at a fair trial.
“ We are entitled to a fair trial and that is the reason I have filed the motion,” Flores said in a phone interview.
Feit is expected back in court April 20, but it is possible that a hearing to address the change of venue motion could come before that date.
Feit faces the rest of his life in prison if found guilty of murder.