NEW YORK — For prosecutors, the work is just beginning after the astonishing arrest last week of a man who police say confessed to strangling a 6-year-old New York City boy 33 years ago in one of the nation's most bewildering missing-child cases.
Pedro Hernandez, 51, was charged with second-degree murder in the 1979 death of Etan Patz, based largely on a signed confession he gave after he spoke voluntarily to detectives for hours, according to police.
But to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt, prosecutors need more than the confession, even though corroboration isn't necessarily required by law, legal experts say. Piecing together that supporting evidence may be difficult: There's no body and no physical evidence, plus a history of famous false confessions in other high-profile cases.
"We live in a day of 'CSI,' fingerprinting, DNA, hand samples, and foot prints and treads on bottoms of shoes and boots. There's going to be none of that here, and that's tough," said Arthur Aidala, a former prosecutor who is now a criminal defense lawyer. "You're essentially relying on this guy's own words, and whether he's credible."
False confessions are common and happen for many reasons, said James Cohen, a law professor at Fordham University, "whether it's that someone is coerced, scared, or is just a wacko looking for 15 minutes of fame."
Among the most well-known was John Mark Karr, who in 2006 said he killed JonBenet Ramsey, the 6-year-old beauty queen found dead in her parents' home a decade earlier. Mr. Karr was whisked from Thailand, where he was teaching, to Colorado and was arrested, but he was released after prosecutors concluded he couldn't have killed her. In the 1930s, more than 200 people came forward to confess to kidnapping the infant son of Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator.
The likelihood of DNA evidence emerging in Etan's case is slim. According to police, Mr. Hernandez said he lured the boy from his school bus stop on May 25, 1979, with the promise of a soda, then strangled him in the basement of the neighborhood convenience store where he worked, put the body in a plastic bag, walked it around the block and dumped it. The shop has long been renovated into an eyeglasses store, and the body was never found.
But, legal experts say, supporting evidence could be as simple as the fact that Mr. Hernandez worked as a stock clerk at the corner store when the boy went missing, and that he told his family and others as early as 1981 that he had "done a bad thing" and killed a child in New York. Investigators are interviewing Mr. Hernandez's family and friends, as well as others who knew him back then.
"What you are trying to do is just put brick upon brick to build a solid foundation, a solid case," said Linda Fairstein, a former prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney's office who headed the sex crimes unit.
Mr. Hernandez was being held Sunday at Bellevue Hospital Center's psychiatric ward. At his arraignment Friday, his court-appointed attorney, Harvey Fishbein, said his client was schizophrenic, bipolar and had been on medication for some time.
A psychiatric evaluation was ordered. No plea was entered, and Mr. Fishbein has given no indication that he may try to argue his client is not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect. Defense lawyers not involved in the case say Mr. Fishbein must carefully evaluate the confession to ensure it wasn't coerced.
"Someone who isn't sane, that's exactly the type of person who would latch onto the 15 minutes of fame," lawyer Joseph Tacopina said. "You have to be very careful that you have the right individual, despite the quest to have resolution that has really tormented the family and city for three decades."