Crime and Courts
Chief investigative reporter Jonathan Dienst on crime, corruption and terrorism.

Judge Allows Confession in Etan Patz Case

A judge has ruled that a video of a man confessing to killing 6-year-old Etan Patz in 1979 is allowed in court.

Patz vanished while walking to his school bus stop in SoHo more than 30 years ago. His body was never found, and his disappearance has become one of the most haunting missing children cases.

After decades of investigation that stretched as far as Israel, Pedro Hernandez emerged as a suspect only in 2012. His trial begins Jan. 5.

Hernandez, who had been a stock clerk at a store in Patz's neighborhood when the boy vanished, confessed on video to killing the boy after six hours of questioning. The tape captures him telling police he lured the boy to the store basement with the promise of a soda, choked him, put the body in a bag and a box and left it on the street several blocks away.

The 53-year-old Hernandez has pleaded not guilty to killing Patz. His lawyers filed a motion to suppress the tape, a key piece of evidence in a case that lacks forensic grounding, because they say he is mentally ill and his admissions were imaginary. The judge denied the defense motion Monday.

In permitting the evidence, State Supreme Court Judge Maxwell Wiley decided that Hernandez was properly advised of his rights and mentally capable of waiving them.

"The court finds that a reasonable person in the defendant's position, innocent of any crime, would not have thought he was in custody," the judge wrote in his decision. "The defendant was never handcuffed or in any way physically restrained. "

"The detectives openly and correctly informed defendant that he was being questioned about an old New York City missing person's case," the decision continued. "Defendant was offered lunch, and given an opportunity to take his medications. Although defendant was urged to tell the truth, at no time was the questioning accusatory or hostile in tone."

While the judge's decision means the confession is admissible, it has no bearing on the truth of the taped confession.

In the video, the Maple Shade, New Jersey, man says, "I felt like something just took over me. I don't know what to say. Something just took over me, and I was just choking him."

In the 1980s, Hernandez also allegedly told a prayer group and others that he'd harmed a child in New York. But authorities have not pointed to any physical or scientific evidence against him, and his defense has said there is none.

Defense attorney Harvey Fishbein reiterated that Monday, saying the only evidence prosecutor has is based on Hernandez's statements. He maintained his client is innocent.

At about 70, Hernandez' IQ puts him in the bottom 2 percent of the population, a defense psychological expert testified during a weeks-long hearing this fall.

His lawyer has said Hernandez's medical records mention schizophrenia dating back years, he's taken antipsychotic medication for years, and since his arrest, he's been diagnosed with schizotypal personality disorder. Its effects on him include "cognitive and perceptual distortions," including hallucinations, Fishbein has said. In one of the confessions, Hernandez says he has had visions of his dead mother.

A defense psychologist told the court he believed Hernandez wouldn't have fully comprehended what he was agreeing to in saying he understood his Miranda rights.

But a prosecution expert differed, noting that Hernandez scored not much below people of average intelligence on a specific test of how well someone understands the function of the familiar Miranda rights warning during police interrogation.

The judge agreed with the prosecution, writing in his decision that although Hernandez was not a high performing or average student, he passed more academic courses.

"Defendant was also a fully functioning adult: a husband and a father, with a history of full employment before his back injury," the judge wrote. 

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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