By Jon Herskovitz
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A former Roman Catholic priest is due to stand trial this week on charges he beat, raped and strangled to death a Texas beauty queen nearly 60 years ago after hearing her last confession.
Lawyers for John Feit, 84, have denied his responsibility for the 1960 murder of Irene Garza, 25, in McAllen, Texas, and said in court filings that he was wrongly accused of “one of the most notorious and heavily publicized crimes in the history of the Rio Grande Valley.”
Jury selection is scheduled to begin on Tuesday and opening statements are expected on Thursday at a state district court in Hidalgo county in south Texas. The trial is likely to take about two weeks, county officials said on Monday.
Garza, a former Miss South Texas and second-grade school teacher, was last seen giving confession during Holy Week at Sacred Heart Catholic Church on April 16, 1960, according to the Texas Rangers cold case website.
Her body was found five days later in a nearby canal. An autopsy showed that Garza had been raped while comatose and died of suffocation.
Feit had initially been considered by authorities to be a suspect in the case but was not indicted. He had been implicated in the assault of another woman in the area a few weeks before Garza's disappearance, but pleaded no contest to aggravated assault and served no jail time.
Shortly after Garza's body was found, Feit was ordered by his church superiors to leave McAllen, the Dallas Morning News reported.
Feit later left the priesthood and moved to Arizona, where he started a family.
Texas Rangers investigating cold cases reported in 2002 that a local priest had told them, shortly after Garza's body was found, that he had seen scratches on the hands of Feit, who was a visiting priest at Sacred Heart Church at the time.
The local priest, Father Joseph O'Brien, also told investigators that Feit had confessed to the murder, law enforcement officials said. Feit has denied that.
Charges were only filed in 2016, however, after a new district attorney for the county won his seat in part on a promise to seek justice in the Garza murder.
Attorneys for Feit tried unsuccessfully to have the trial moved, arguing that local residents had been prejudiced against him by decades of biased media reports.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Additional reporting by Jim Forsyth in San Antonio; Editing by Tom Brown)