NJ priest’s brutal killer loses appeal claiming life in prison ‘cruel and unusual’
CHATHAM BOROUGH — A church janitor serving a life sentence for brutally stabbing a Catholic priest to death has lost an appeal that argued that his punishment is cruel and unusual and that he was denied a fair trial.
Jose Feliciano, now 71, was convicted by a Morris County jury in 2011 of killing St. Patrick’s Church pastor Edward Hinds in a fit of rage on Oct. 22, 2009.
Hinds was stabbed at least 44 times throughout his entire body. Police the next day found his cold corpse lying in a mess of blood in the rectory kitchen.
During the struggle, Hinds tried to call 911 on his cell phone, but Feliciano grabbed it and told the dispatcher that no help was needed.
Feliciano admitted to the slaying, telling police that Hinds had carried on a sexual relationship with Feliciano for several years after threatening to fire him from his job. Feliciano said voices in his head urged him to stab Hinds after the priest told Feliciano that he was terminating his employment.
But authorities said Hinds was letting Feliciano go because he had discovered in a background check that Feliciano was a fugitive from justice in Pennsylvania after failing to appear in court back in 1988 on charges that he molested a 7-year-old girl.
Feliciano was sentenced in 2012 to life in prison for murder and also 20 years for robbery and five years for hindering.
He argued in an appeal that the trial court erred by admitting evidence of his prior arrest in Pennsylvnnia and for allowing a pastoral psychotherapist and a hospital mental health worker to testify.
Feliciano’s appeal also argued that then-Morris County Prosecutor Robert Bianchi, who personally handled the trial, made inflammatory comments to the jury.
In a 70-page decision Thursday, a three-judge appellate panel found no merit in Feliciano’s appeal.
The decision says mention of the prior arrest was relevant in order to prove the prosecution’s theory of motive and to rebut the defense theory that the killing was a reaction to the alleged sexual relationship.
The jury never was told that he had been accused of molestation.
The appellate decision also held that the church’s psychotherapist was not bound by victim-counselor privilege or cleric-penitent privilege because she was neither a licensed therapist nor a priest. The church therapist testified that Feliciano never told her about being abused by any priest.
The hospital worker who testified also was not bound by physician–patient privilege because she was merely a hospital admissions screener, the appellate panel said.
The panel also dismissed Feliciano’s argument that his sentence was cruel and unusual.
Life in prison without parole has been a sentencing option since New Jersey did away with the death penalty in 2007. A convict cannot be sentenced to life without parole, however, unless other aggravating factors are involved.
In Feliciano’s case, the courts ruled, the jury had also found him guilty of robbery during the slaying and of acting alone, which makes his life imprisonment appropriate.
The panel said Feliciano’s punishment is “consistent with contemporary standards of decency, is not grossly disproportionate to the crime, and accomplishes the legitimate goal of protecting society from individuals who commit murder.”
Feliciano’s appeal was filed by Assistant Deputy Public Defender Jay L. Wilensky.
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