Lawyer for man accused of slaying Chatham priest says medication influenced confession

| September 9, 2010

CHATHAM — A suspect who police say confessed to murdering a Chatham priest last year made the statement while he was in a hospital’s psychiatric ward and may have been affected by prescription drugs at that time, his attorney said today.

But a prosecutor said suspect Jose Feliciano, 64, of Easton, Pa. — who is charged with stabbing to death Rev. Edward Hinds of St. Patrick Church on Oct. 22 — was initially being held in a psychiatric ward at Morristown Memorial Hospital for security reasons.

The issue was raised by defense attorney Neill Hamilton, a public defender, during a status hearing in the case in Superior Court in Morristown. In July, Feliciano was ordered by a judge to have undergone a psychiatric exam by today, but that exam has not yet been conducted, Hamilton told Judge David Ironson.

Hinds’ body was found Oct. 23 after he failed to show up for morning Mass. He was stabbed 32 times in the head and chest.

Witnesses said Feliciano half-heartedly attempted to revive the priest after the discovery. The longtime church janitor became distraught and was taken to Morristown Memorial, where he remained under watch of detectives who charged him two days later, on Oct. 24.

At Morristown Memorial, Feliciano was held in a psychiatric ward, where Morris County Prosecutor’s Office Capt. Jeffrey Paul interviewed him on Oct. 24, Hamilton said. As part of the upcoming psychiatric exam, Hamilton said he will need to learn what medication, if any, Feliciano was on while he was in the psychiatric ward, whether it had been prescribed by a doctor and "whether it had any effect on his voluntary statement" to Paul.

Morris County Assistant Prosecutor David Bruno replied that Feliciano initially "was in a psychiatric ward for security reasons," and became a psychiatric patient after expressing "suicidal ideations."

Bruno also said the prosecution has made a plea offer to Feliciano, to have him plead guilty to two counts of murder and first-degree robbery of Hinds’ cell phone, in exchange for dismissal of two weapons offenses, a hindering-apprehension charge and a "finding of aggravating factors" that was handed up in an indictment in January. Such a finding, that the murder was "outrageously wanton or vile," could lead to a stiffer sentence should Feliciano be convicted.

The case is expected to go to trial some time next year. The next status hearing in the case was set for Oct. 6.

Several issues are scheduled to be heard Oct. 18 to Oct. 21, including hearings on whether the prosecution can introduce at trial Feliciano’s statements to police and his prior criminal history, and a defense motion to suppress a "warrantless wiretap" that allowed police to trace Hinds’ cell phone to the area of Feliciano’s home in Easton, Pa.

Investigators at first received information on the location of Hinds’ cell phone from his wireless carrier, but without a warrant on an emergency basis as allowed under law. A judge later that day authorized the warrant.

The prosecution has filed papers saying the warrantless wiretap was legal and Feliciano had no expectation of privacy for a cell phone that he stole.

Regarding Feliciano’s prior criminal history, prosecutors last month filed court papers that revealed Feliciano’s claim that he attacked Hinds because the clergyman refused to end a four-year sexual affair. The motive offered by the longtime janitor at St. Patrick Church was countered by prosecutors, who wrote Hinds was preparing to fire his employee after learning of a 1988 arrest in Philadelphia for inappropriately touching a child.

Feliciano, 64, of Easton, Pa., had been a fugitive ever since.

Typically, prior "bad acts" are not permitted as evidence in criminal trials. But prosecutors wrote Feliciano’s past lies are at the heart of the Oct. 22 killing. Moreover, authorities have found no evidence of an affair between Feliciano and Hinds, 61.

 

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