Trial begins for janitor accused of killing priest

October 21, 2011 4:14:51 AM PDT
The trial of a church janitor accused of murdering a New Jersey priest began Thursday with prosecutors arguing that the man stabbed his employer and methodically covered his tracks out of fear he was about to be fired and the defense countering it was a crime of passion in which the janitor snapped under the pressure of unspecified threats from the priest.

Jose Feliciano is charged with fatally stabbing the Rev. Edward Hinds on Oct. 22, 2009. The 61-year-old Hinds was found dead on the kitchen floor of the rectory of St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church in Chatham after he failed to appear for morning Mass on Oct. 23.

Authorities said he had been stabbed 32 times.

The 66-year-old Feliciano, who had worked at the church for 18 years, previously told police he killed the priest because Hinds threatened to fire him if he ended their homosexual relationship.

Neither the prosecution nor the defense mentioned that explicitly during opening arguments. Instead, defense attorney Neill Hamilton alluded to "the high price" that Hinds had forced Feliciano to pay in exchange for keeping quiet about the discovery of a two-decade-old arrest warrant Feliciano had from Philadelphia for indecent assault on a minor.

Hamilton questioned why, if Hinds had discovered information about Feliciano that would have required his automatic termination, he did not act sooner, but instead waited until a compliance audit of the church by the diocese was just a week away.

Instead, Hamilton argued, Hinds wielded the information to force Feliciano into doing things he said "provoked Mr. Feliciano to the point that would make a reasonable person fly into a homicidal rage."

Morris County Prosecutor Robert Bianchi sought to portray Feliciano as a cunning liar who methodically planned the crime and its cover-up to the point he stole the priest's cellphone and ripped a rectory telephone handset out of the wall after the dying priest tried to call 911 for help. Feliciano left the dead man in the rectory, went home, ate dinner and calmly returned to work the next day to make what Bianchi called "an unbelievably theatrical performance" grieving over the dead priest's body.

Hinds had been about to fire Feliciano - and even marked Friday, Oct. 23 in his calendar as "Jose - last day," after the janitor had refused to submit to a fingerprinting and background check required of all church employees under the "Protecting God's Children" program put in place following the international church sex abuse scandal, Bianchi said.

Police also found evidence on Hinds' computer that he had accessed paid investigative sites, trying to do his own criminal background search on Feliciano, Bianchi said.

A series of 911 calls from the day of the stabbing were played for jurors Thursday in State Superior Court in Morristown. In the first call, Hinds can be heard trying to respond to a dispatcher questioning his location before the line goes dead. The 911 operator calls back and it goes to voicemail. A third call was answered by a man prosecutors said was Feliciano, who tells the dispatcher there is no emergency.

"That's a man who is deceiving, covering up his crime, a liar, a fabricator, that doesn't care a whit that he's murdering another human being," Bianchi said.

Half of Hinds' broken cellphone was discovered by police in a park trash can near Feliciano's Easton, Pa. home, Bianchi said. The damage to the phone had caused it to start dialing random numbers off Hinds' saved contacts list, which police found were beaming off a cell tower in Easton. Police also found the rectory phone and the knife during their search, Bianchi said, as well as blood stains on clothing found in Feliciano's house that matched Hinds' DNA.

Feliciano, a married father of two with close-cropped grey hair, a beard and glasses, kept his head lowered during most of the proceedings, as if taking notes.

A few parishioners were in attendance, and said the case had been devastating for the St. Patrick's community, where both Hinds and Feliciano were well-liked, respected church members.

Feliciano could face life in prison if convicted of murder.

Defense attorneys are arguing for the lesser charge of passion provocation manslaughter.

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