john feit
Former priest John Feit walks past clothing worn by Irene Garza during the fourth day of his trial for the 1960 murder of Garza at the Hidalgo County Courthouse in Edinburg, Texas, U.S., December 5, 2017 REUTERS

A former priest has been convicted of murdering a 25-year-old Texas schoolteacher and beauty queen, more than half a century after her death.

Irene Garza, a one-time Miss All South Texas Sweetheart, disappeared on 16 April 1960 after attending confession at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in the city of McAllen.

Her body was found in a canal five days later. She had been raped, beaten and strangled to death.

It took a Hidalgo County jury just six-and-a-half hours to end her family's 57-year wait for justice when they found 85-year-old former Catholic priest John Bernard Feit guilty of her murder on Thursday (7 December).

Feit, who was 28 at the time of her death, came under suspicion early on, telling police that he heard Garza's confession – in the church rectory, not in the confessional – but denying he killed her.

This week, prosecutors presented evidence that elected and church officials suspected Feit killed her but wanted to avoid prosecuting him because it might harm the church's reputation and elected officials politically.

Most elected officials at the time in Hidalgo County were Catholic, and Sen. John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, was running for president that year.

Among the evidence that pointed to Feit as a suspect over the years was his portable photographic slide viewer, which was found near Garza's body.

Two fellow priests also told authorities Feit confessed to them, with one of them saying he saw scratches on Feit soon after Garza's disappearance.

At trial, Dale Tacheny, a tax adviser in Oklahoma City who had been a priest at a Missouri monastery where Feit had applied to live in 1963, said that Feit had admitted to him that he had murdered a young woman.

Tacheny said it wasn't until years later that he learned that the woman Feit had described was Garza.

It also emerged that Feit had been accused of attacking another young woman in a church in a nearby town just weeks before Garza's death. He eventually pleaded no contest to the charge and was fined $500.

Defense attorney O. Rene Flores argued that prosecutors had insufficient evidence to convict Feit, who was living in Arizona at the time of his arrest last year.

But the jury disagreed after hearing five days of testimony and found him guilty.

Garza's family members and friends had long pushed authorities to reopen the case, and it became an issue in the 2014 district attorney's race.

irene garza
Hidalgo County Assistant District Attorney Michael Garza hold a photograph of Irene Garza as he presents his closing argument in John Bernard Feit's trial for the 1960 murder of Garza in the 92nd state District Court in Edinburg, Texas, U.S., December 7, 2017 REUTERS

Prosecutors Michael Garza (no relation to the family) and Krystine Ramon hugged members of Garza's family after the verdict was read.

District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez, who campaigned for election in part on a pledge to reopen the Garza murder case, embraced his team of prosecutors and the Garza family, some of whom shed tears of relief.

A stone-faced John Feit was led from the courtroom back to his county jail cell.

The jury will begin hearing evidence Friday morning on what punishment Feit should receive. He could be sentenced to up to 99 years or life imprisonment.

Feit had left the priesthood in 1972, married and went on to work at the Catholic charity St. Vincent de Paul in Phoenix for a number of years, training and recruiting volunteers and helping oversee the charity's network of food pantries.

He had previously spent time at a treatment center in New Mexico for troubled priests and after that became a supervisor and had a part in clearing priests for assignments to parishes.

Among the men Feit helped keep in the ministry was child molester James Porter, who assaulted more than 100 victims before he was ultimately defrocked and sent to prison.