NEW YORK — The 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 attorney said Thursday.
Pedro Hernandez’s admission in May to suffocating Etan Patz was a stunning turn in one of the most notorious and vexing cases in New York history, prompting the first arrest ever in the case. But he is mentally ill, and his statements “are not reliable,” lawyer Harvey Fishbein said after Mr. Hernandez made a brief court appearance Thursday.
“The really sad part of this case is that it will take time, it will take money and it will not tell the city what happened to Etan Patz,” Mr. Fishbein said.
An ashen-looking Mr. Hernandez stood in handcuffs during the hearing and never spoke. His wife and daughter were in the courtroom, but left without talking to reporters. Mr. Hernandez has been held without bail since his arrest.
While Mr. Fishbein has said Mr. Hernandez is schizophrenic and prone to hallucinations, the lawyer 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,” said Erin M. Duggan, spokeswoman for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr.
A judge set a Dec. 12 date for Mr. Hernandez to enter a plea.
Etan’s disappearance 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.
Mr. Hernandez, 51, was a teenage stock clerk at a convenience store when Etan disappeared on his way to school on May 25, 1979. He 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.
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 long-standing 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.
Mr. Fishbein said he planned to have expert witnesses explain why people sometimes admit to crimes they didn’t commit.
“It’s a hard concept to understand. But it’s a reality. And it’s a scary reality,” he said.
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