Student Perspective: The Etan Patz Case – Confession, Lack of Physical Evidence and Reasonable Doubt
POST WRITTEN BY: Alexander Zugaro (’15), Pace Law School
The story of the 6-year-old boy, Etan Patz, who had gone missing in SOHO Manhattan in 1979, is one that stretches over several decades. Now, after a ruling on November 24, 2014 by Judge Maxwell Wiley and almost a three month long trial, the story is reaching a conclusion. In 2012, after police re-opened the investigation, Pedro Hernandez confessed to law enforcement that he was responsible for the disappearance and murder of Etan Patz. He told law enforcement that he strangled Etan and disposed of his body. Mr. Hernandez was an 18-year-old man working in a neighborhood convenience store at the time of Patz’s disappearance.
However, this past fall a hearing was held regarding the admissibility of Mr. Hernandez’s confession. Hernandez’s defense attorney, Harvey Fishbein, argued that Hernandez was schizophrenic and bipolar at the time he made his confession. As such, Mr. Hernandez did not understand he could reassert his right against self-incrimination even after he waived his Miranda warnings. Yet, Judge Maxwell Wiley ruled on November 24, 2014 that the confession was admissible, stating that Hernandez waived his Miranda rights and that such waiver was done knowingly and intelligently.
To date the prosecution has not been able to find any evidence corroborating Hernandez’s confession, except a statement made by Hernandez’s brother who told police that Hernandez had confessed to him two years prior to his arrest and a statement made to members of his prayer group in the summer of 1979, none of whom came forward to testify until after Mr. Hernandez was arrested. The body of Etan Patz was never found, and prosecutors have not presented any physical evidence tying Mr. Hernandez to the boy’s disappearance.
The significance of Judge Wiley’s ruling is that the jury was able to hear Hernandez’s confession and will decide on whether they believe his confession is reliable. Defense attorney Frishbein stated that “Mr. Hernandez is extremely suggestible because of his low I.Q. and other mental handicaps. Anyone who sees these confessions will understand that when the police were finished with him, Mr. Hernandez believed he killed Etan Patz, but that doesn’t mean that he did.” On the other hand, however, the lead prosecutor stated that Mr. Hernandez’s statements contain little-known details about the crime that would be hard for someone to invent. Because Judge Wiley ruled that Hernandez’ confession is admissible, the prosecution was able to present this confession as evidence to the jury, leading to the inevitable back and forth between Mr. Fishbein and the prosecutors about the reliability and weight of the confession.
Generally, if a defendant makes a videotaped confession coupled with voluntary admission to at least one other person, such evidence would be nearly impossible for the defense attorney to overcome. However, since in this case there is no tangible evidence corroborating the confession, will the jury doubt the accuracy of Mr. Hernandez’ confession? Time will soon tell.
Since the beginning of the trial on January 30, 2015, the defense has continued to undermine the reliability of Hernandez’s confession. Not only has the defense argued that the confession was a fantasy invented under police pressure by a man with a weak and malleable mind, plagued by a personality disorder, Mr. Fishbein has presented evidence of an alternative suspect who might have been responsible of Etan Patz’ disappearance. Witnesses place Jose A. Ramos, a man convicted of child molestation in an unrelated case, near Etan Patz’s home around the time of the murder. Ramos was dating Ms. Susan Harrington, who was hired to walk Etan Patz to and from school. The defense witnesses further testified that Ramos met Etan Patz and that he had been in the Patz’s apartment. Although Etan Patz’s mother denied Ramos was ever in their apartment, by presenting this evidence, the defense further undermined Hernandez’s confession.
The confession of Mr. Hernandez has become the focal point of the entire trial. As the attorneys are delivering their closing arguments, many people following the case and trial, I’m sure, have developed their opinions. For me, it was important to realize and understand that an innocent defendant and a defendant being not guilty are two very different things. The defense attorney has to create a reasonable doubt in the jurors’ minds that Hernandez has possibly not committed the alleged crime in order to succeed. Mr. Fishbein’s efforts to cast this doubt by introducing an alternative suspect theory, by undermining the reliability of the original confession, and by pointing to the lack of physical evidence have been clear. However, it is difficult to tell what the outcome of this case will be. As the jury is about to retire to deliberate, the long anticipated verdict will soon be revealed bringing this case to a close after decades of waiting.
- James C. McKinley, Two Portrayals of Patz Suspect: Manipulative, or Mentally Ill, New York Times, (March 8 2015).
- John Riley, Etan Patz Trial: Members of Prayer Group Testify that Pedro Hernandez Said He Killed Boy (Feb. 6, 2015).
- James C. McKinley, Etan Patz Trial Starts, 35 Years After Boy Disappeared on SoHo Street, New York Times (Jan 30 2015).
- James C. McKinley, In Etan Patz Case, High Hurdles for Prosecutors and Defense, New York Times (Jan 29 2015).
- James C. McKinley, Confession in Etan Patz Case Can Be Used at Trial, Judge Rules, New York Times (Nov. 24, 2014).
- James C. McKinley, Judge in Etan Patz Case to Decide if Defendant Understood Rights, New York Times (Oct. 7, 2014).
- James C. McKinley, Confession in Etan Patz’s Killing: ‘I Tried to Stop, but I Couldn’t’, New York Times (Sept. 15, 2014).
- James C. McKinley, Defense Witness Places Different Suspect in Etan Patz’s Apartment, New York Times (Mar. 30, 2015).