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The Beauty Queen and the Priest

As faithful readers of this blog know, for my sins, no doubt, I am an attorney.  Over my 35 years at the bar I have been involved as defense counsel in more than my share of criminal cases.  In regard to what follows please recall that I am going by accounts in the media and that is a very poor substitute for actually being involved in a case.  However, what I have read, as a defense attorney, troubles me greatly, hence this post.

Back in 1960 Irene Garza had life by the tail.  She was 25 years old, a beauty queen, a teacher of disadvantaged kids, and a faithful Catholic, a daily communicant.  On Easter eve she decided to go to Confession.  A then 27 year old priest John Feit, a visiting priest at Sacred Heart parish in McAllen, Texas, said he heard her Confession at the rectory.  Two days later her body was found floating in an irrigation canal.  She had been beaten, suffocated and raped while unconscious.  Suspicion focused on Feit and he was brought in for questioning.  He was never charged, allegedly due to influence by the Catholic Church.  Feit denied that he had murdered her and has continued to deny that murder.

Feit left the priesthood in 1972, got married and had kids.  Over the years there were efforts to reopen the investigation but nothing came of these efforts until 2016 when an indictment was returned by a grand jury.  The trial was held this year and Feit was sentenced to life imprisonment.  Go here to read about the background to the trial and the trial.

I rather suspect myself that Feit was probably guilty of the murder, but his trial, as describe in the media, seems unbelievable from the way in which it tromped on the rights of the accused, and the weakness of the evidence.  Go here to read an account of the trial.  Here are some of the major problem areas that I hope an appellate court addresses.

  1.  The prosecution was allowed to bring into evidence at trial evidence of alleged pressure by the Catholic Church against prosecution of the priest back in 1960.  How in the world did that have any legal relevance to the murder charge?  Even if were relevant the prejudice clearly outweighed any probative value and the trial judge should not have allowed a second of it to come before the jury.
  2. A former monk was allowed to testify that Feit confessed the murder to him in 1963.  It flabbergasts me that the judge allowed that in.  Rule 505 Of the Texas Rules of Evidence  should have clearly banned that testimony from admission.  Go here to read Rule 505.
  3. A few weeks before the murder a woman was attacked in church, she fought off the man, at a parish where Feit was serving.  Feit was charged after the woman picked him out of a lineup.  After two trials with hung juries, Feit pleaded no contest to a charge of attacking the young woman, a greatly reduced charge, and was fined $500.00.  Once again, this should not have been allowed into evidence.  The probative value is outweighed by the prejudice to the defendant.

Without these items the evidence against Feit was insufficient and the jury should have returned a verdict of not guilty.  I hope his conviction is overturned on appeal.  The murder of Irene Garza cries out for justice, but the cause of justice was ill served by this dog’s breakfast of a case.  The case had become a political football and allowed the current District Attorney to be elected against the incumbent in 2014.  Go here to read an article from 2014 which gives a taste of the politics involved.

 

How do you convict an ex-priest of a 57 year old murder?  With anti-Catholic bigotry I fear, and a judge who apparently badly needs a remedial course on Evidence.

 

Update:

Go here to read an article on the testimony allow in about the alleged history of the Catholic Church in shielding predator priests.  This alone should be sufficient for reversal on appeal.

The judge hearing this case, who denied a defense motion for a change of venue although the case of Irene Garza was clearly a political football in the county, was once suspended from practice in the federal courts for two years.  Go here to read about it.

The District Attorney was allowed by the Judge to suggest that the Catholic Church got rid of physical evidence linking Feit to the murder although there was zero evidence of this.

This case is an insult to all self respecting kangeroos.

 

 

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

35 Comments

  1. So what is Feit’s motive for killing this girl and assaulting the previous one? Is he just a deranged psychopathic lunatic who happened to get into the priesthood? Hear the confession of a girl whom you don’t know and then murder her? Odd, very odd. But mental derangement is by definition odd, and yes, I saw that Feit had been assigned to a place for troubled priests for a number of years.

    Well, Feit is very old now. He has one last chance to repent before he dies.

  2. Saint John Paul II said that “one crime and the priest is OUT” John Feit ought to have been defrocked after the first sexual assault. Why, even today, the bishops coddle these sexual offenders is beyond normal. Cut me a break.

  3. Two witnesses are required to establish a judicial fact. The Seal of Confession is protected by the fact that each person is only one witness and the confession is hearsay in court of law and inadmissible.
    Bella Dodd a former communist said that the party sent a thousand men into the Catholic Church to destroy the Catholic Church. Feit ought to have been defrocked after the crime of sexual abuse. Women must use the confessional box for the Sacrament…church law.
    I do not know what atheists use for Justice, the perfect Justice of God. I am glad that God is perfect Justice. God made him. God will take care of him.

  4. “Two witnesses are required to establish a judicial fact. The Seal of Confession is protected by the fact that each person is only one witness and the confession is hearsay in court of law and inadmissible.”

    None of that is correct Mary. One witness is often sufficient to establish a fact in a court of law, and an admission of a party is usually not hearsay. The priest-penitent privilege exists as a matter of statute because otherwise such statements would usually be admissible in a court of law otherwise.

  5. I’m wondering just why his own attorney did not raise these objections – or if he did, and they were overruled – but if so, he has good grounds for an appeal.

  6. “None of that is correct Mary. One witness is often sufficient to establish a fact in a court of law, and an admission of a party is usually not hearsay.”
    I thought that only a dying man’s confession or admission was acceptable in a court of law without a second verification was because the dying man had no reason to lie.
    The question remains in this case: Was there sufficient proof to proceed with prosecution? A mistrial would have prevented double jeopardy of life and resulted in no conviction whatsoever.

  7. “I thought that only a dying man’s confession or admission was acceptable in a court of law without a second verification was because the dying man had no reason to lie.”

    No, what you are talking about is a dying declaration which is a hearsay exception. There are many hearsay exceptions.
    “The question remains in this case: Was there sufficient proof to proceed with prosecution?”

    Probably there was, since even a small amount of evidence meets the probable cause standard to have a case to go forward to trial. Was there enough evidence to convict is the relevant inquiry, and most certainly there was not.

  8. Speaking of old cases the following was on the DC metro TV news Friday: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/maryland-couple-can-t-forgive-former-kkk-member-turned-priest-n828086.
    The victims of the cross burning in the 1970’s received a 2 page letter from the priest asking forgiveness and received $23k in Sept. The money was the court determined amount from the suit 40 years ago. In addition to the judgement the then 23 year Viet-Nam vet served 90 days in jail.
    The couple say they cannot forget and forgive and want $68k in interest plus $9k and change for their current lawyer’s fees. They also intend to sue the law firm that represented them pro bono in the suit 40 years ago and intend to sue the Diocese of Arlington.

  9. For now and the distant future, an accusation will be nearly sufficient to punish any Catholic priest in the USA.
    The priest abuse scandal residue will not go away anytime soon.

  10. John 8: 17-18 “And in your law it is written that the witness of two persons is true. It is I who bear witness to myself, and He who sent me, the Father who bears witness to me.” What in heaven’s name does the court do in “he said, she said” cases?
    Two witnesses would include forensic evidence. Would there be DNA in the victim’s body? Needs to be looked at.
    Homicide has no statute of limitations.

  11. It is very telling that Feit seduced the victim into the rectory, because at that time the church law said that all women were to be absolved in the confessional in the church. The only exemption was given to missionary priests for confession to be held in any place available.
    My marriage took place in 1959 and the priest told me that my confession had to take place in the church.

  12. Don, you are spot on-“very poor substitute for being involved in the case;” and also worse than poor substitute for being in the courtroom to hear the witnesses testify. As you know and probably have your self seen and heard, as I have in my trial work, it is not unusual for a witness to lie under oath and for that lie never to be disproved by testimony of other witnesses or by documentary evidence – but folks on the jury know that the witness has lied, and they are right. Without being there, we cannot know such things. Even a focused video of a witness testifying does not get the whole picture. Maybe that is why Founding Fathers enshrined jury trial in our Constitution. And why did this priest publish the fact that he had heard Irene’s confession? No way to prove or disprove this. Guy McClung

  13. It is very telling that Feit seduced the victim into the rectory, because at that time the church law said that all women were to be absolved in the confessional in the church.

    Somehow I don’t think people in hospital wards and shut-in at home were being denied the sacrament of confession.

  14. Minor typo: was once suspected from practice in the federal courts for two years
    I suspect this should be ‘suspended’?

  15. “Somehow I don’t think people in hospital wards and shut-in at home were being denied the sacrament of confession.”
    This true but it does not change the church law at that time for women to receive the Sacrament of Penance in the confessional box in the church in ordinary circumstances. and women do not wear hats, gloves and kneel at the altar rail since Vatican II. I remember.

  16. “For now and the distant future, an accusation will be nearly sufficient to punish any Catholic priest in the USA.
    The priest abuse scandal residue will not go away anytime soon.”
    The statue for limitations for sexual abuse of minor children in public school in New York is 90 days. The Catholic League might help with that but it is nice to demand equal Justice for all.

  17. As long as we are talking about “the good ole days”. The pastor at St. Peters Catholic Church in New Brunswick, N.J. went down to the Rivoli Theater on Albany Street and turned away his parishioners from X rated films. Isn’t that why we call him “father”?

  18. “A few weeks before the murder Feit pleaded no contest to a charge of attacking a young woman and was fined $500.00.”

    I have not read the facts of the case, but I can see how the previous attack might be relevant as evidence of what the Lord Justice General in Moorov v HM Advocate called, “some particular and ascertained unity of intent, project, campaign, or adventure, which lies beyond or behind – but is related to – the separate act. The existence of such an underlying unity, comprehending and governing the separate acts, provides the necessary connecting link between them.”

    Of course, the facts of the previous attack would be all-important in determining its relevance.

  19. Donald R McClarey wrote: “One witness is often sufficient to establish a fact in a court of law.”

    That is certainly true.

    Baron Hume gives a lucid exposition of the rule “Testis unus, testis nullus” [One witness is no witness] (cf : Dig. 22.5.12)

    “No one shall in any case be convicted on the testimony of a single witness. No matter how trivial the offence, and how high so ever the credit and character of the witness, still our law is averse to rely on his single word, in any enquiry which may affect the person, liberty, or fame of his neighbour; and rather than run the risk of such an error, a risk which does not hold when there is a concurrence of testimonies, it is willing that the guilty should escape.” (II 383).

    In this passage Hume was dealing with direct evidence, but he goes on to say (at p. 384): “It would not, however, be a reasonable thing, nor is it our law, that the want of a second witness to the fact cannot be supplied by the other circumstances of the case. If one man swear that he saw the panel stab the deceased, and others confirm his testimony with circumstances such as the panel’s sudden flight from the spot, the blood on his clothes, the bloody instrument found in his possession, his confession on being taken, or the like, certainly these are as good, nay, better even, than a second testimony to the act of stabbing. Neither is it to be understood in cases of circumstantial evidence, either such as the foregoing case or one where all the evidence is circumstantial, that two witnesses are necessary to establish each particular; because the aptitude and coherence of the several circumstances often as fully confirm the truth of the story as if all the witnesses were deponing to the same facts.”

  20. “I have not read the facts of the case, but I can see how the previous attack might be relevant as evidence of what the Lord Justice General in Moorov v HM Advocate called, “some particular and ascertained unity of intent, project, campaign, or adventure, which lies beyond or behind – but is related to – the separate act. The existence of such an underlying unity, comprehending and governing the separate acts, provides the necessary connecting link between them.”

    We have the same rule in this country MPS. In Illinois prior bad acts have to basically be on all fours factually with the current crime before they are admitted into evidence.

  21. The statue for limitations for sexual abuse of minor children in public school in New York is 90 days. The Catholic League might help with that but it is nice to demand equal Justice for all.

    No it isn’t. A suburban schoolteacher in my home town was prosecuted in 2007 for an incident which supposedly occurred in 2000.

  22. Donald R McClarey wrote, “In Illinois prior bad acts have to basically be on all fours factually with the current crime before they are admitted into evidence.”

    That appears to be stricter than the Scottish rule.
    In Ogg v H.M. Advocate, (1938) the Lord Justice-Clerk (Aitchison) said at page 158: “As I have said, the doctrine of Moorov is a valuable doctrine, but it must be applied with great caution. If it is not applied with caution, there is a danger that evidence showing a general disposition to commit some kind of offence might be treated as corroboration. That must always be guarded against and the doctrine ought not to be applied unless inter-relation of the similar offences in some substantial sense can be with certainty affirmed.”

    But, as the Lord Justice General said in Bargon v. H.M. Advocate at page 1233: “All these cases have to be considered on their own facts and we would not wish to lay down any hard and fast doctrine. The simple question in each case is whether or not all the circumstances including the time gap are such that is open to a jury properly to infer that there was a course of conduct which linked the incidents and so provided the basis for the doctrine to be applied.”

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