By SAMANTHA HENRY, Associated Press
MORRISTOWN, N.J. (AP) — A former church janitor was sentenced Friday to life in prison without parole for the 2009 stabbing death of a beloved New Jersey priest who had fired him.
Jose Feliciano declined to comment before he was sentenced for the death of Rev. Edward Hinds at St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church in Chatham.
Both men were well-known members of the church community, and the slaying shook the parish and well-to-do suburb of Chatham, a northern New Jersey community about 20 miles west of Manhattan.
Prosecutors said Hinds fired Feliciano after discovering the janitor had an outstanding arrest warrant in Philadelphia from the 1980s for sexually touching a child. They said Feliciano stabbed Hinds more than 30 times as the 61-year-old priest, in his clerical robes, was brewing a cup of coffee in the rectory kitchen.
Hinds' body was found when he didn't show up for Mass.
Feliciano, of Easton, Pa., testified for eight days during his trial in state Superior Court in Morristown. He admitted killing the priest but claimed he had acted in a fit of rage over sexual blackmail. He testified Hinds had demanded sex in exchange for keeping quiet about the warrant.
Several witnesses testified that Feliciano never mentioned the alleged sexual overtures, and Morris County Prosecutor Robert Bianchi insisted Friday that investigators found no evidence to support the claims.
"Our family, our community is never going to be whole again because of Ed's murder," Daniel Silas Miller, whose mother was Hinds' cousin, said outside the courtroom minutes after the sentencing. "Thank God, everyone saw through these lies, and Ed's reputation is restored."
Several members of Hinds' parish spoke of the devastating impact the slaying had on their tiny suburban community and the horror of hearing such accusations made against their priest.
Michelle Ballotta Lowe, a parish member for more than 40 years, considered Hinds a confidant and close friend. She said counselors were brought in for children too terrified to sleep with the lights off following the murder, and for parents reeling from revelations about Feliciano's past.
She described the trust the community had had for a man who once "patted our children on the heads as he gave them milk and cookies," and noted that he was a fellow member of the church along with his wife and children.
"The world can be a cruel place. I know people learn that in life, but I do deeply resent the manner in which this lesson was imposed on us," Lowe said.
Feliciano had worked at the parish since 1991. Prosecutors said he used aliases and fake identification over the years to hide his past. In December, a jury found Feliciano guilty of murder, felony murder, two counts of robbery and two weapons counts.
Bianchi became emotional, his voice breaking at times, as he argued for Superior Court Judge Thomas Manahan to impose the maximum sentence. Outside court, he said he had been moved by how Hinds lived his life and saddened by his senseless death.
"This man's life was dedicated, 24-7 to helping people," Bianchi said. "He died literally trying to protect God's children, and he paid for it with his life."
Follow Samantha Henry at http://www.twitter.com/SamanthaHenry
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.