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Lawyer: Man in Patz case will plead not guilty
NEW YORK — he man charged with killing a 6-year-old boy in 1979 made a false confession and will plead not guilty in a case that catalyzed the missing-children’s movement, his lawyer said Thursday.
Pedro Hernandez’ May admission to suffocating Etan Patz was a stunning turn in one of the most notorious and vexing cases in New York City history, prompting the first arrest ever in the case. But he is mentally ill, and his statements “are not reliable,” his lawyer, Harvey Fishbein, said after Hernandez made a brief court appearance Thursday. A judge set a Dec. 12 date for him to enter a plea.
An ashen-looking Hernandez stood in handcuffs during the hearing and never spoke. His wife and daughter were in the courtroom but left without talking to reporters. Hernandez has been held without bail since his arrest.
While Fishbein has said Hernandez is schizophrenic and prone to hallucinations, the attorney said the New Jersey man is fit to stand trial. Legally, competence for trial doesn’t mean a defendant’s mental state can’t be part of his defense.
But prosecutors say an exhaustive post-arrest investigation found enough evidence to seek an indictment and proceed to trial.
“We believe the evidence that Mr. Hernandez killed Etan Patz to be credible and persuasive, and that his statements are not the product of any mental illness,” Erin M. Duggan, spokeswoman for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr., said Wednesday.
Etan’s disappearance is legend: It led to an intensive search and spawned a movement to publicize cases of missing children. His photo was among the first put on milk cartons, and his case turned May 25 into National Missing Children's Day.
Hernandez, 51, was a teenage stock clerk at a convenience store when Etan disappeared on his way to school on May 25, 1979. Hernandez was a married father with no criminal record and living in Maple Shade, N.J. when police approached him based on a tip earlier this year.
Investigators say he told them he lured the boy into the convenience store with the promise of a soda. He allegedly said he led the child to the basement, choked him and left his body in a bag of trash about a block away.
Following the arrest, court hearings for Hernandez were postponed for weeks, with both sides saying they were continuing to investigate. The prosecutor’s office said in September it wanted time to keep going “in a measured and fair manner.”
Authorities seized a computer and a piece of old-looking children’s clothing from Hernandez’s home, scoured the basement of the building where he had worked in what was then a grocery store and interviewed his relatives and friends — but nothing incriminating came of it, according to a person familiar with the investigation.
The person wasn’t authorized to discuss findings not yet made public and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Under New York state law, a confession can be enough to convict someone as long as authorities can establish that a crime occurred.
False confessions are a longstanding legal phenomenon. Examples range from the more than 200 people who came forward to claim to kidnapping the infant son of aviator Charles Lindbergh in the 1930s to the 2006 episode in which a man falsely said he’d killed JonBenet Ramsey, the 6-year-old beauty queen found dead in her parents’ Colorado home a decade earlier.
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