Etan Patz Murder Trial: Could Confessed Killer Pedro Hernandez Go Free?
In 2012, more than three decades after Etan Patz vanished, a man named Pedro Hernandez allegedly confessed to killing the 6-year-old, describing in detail how he strangled the boy, packed his body into a box and dumped him in the trash. Etan’s body was never found.
The confession was captured on video and played for the jurors who are now charged with deciding Hernandez’s fate in a murder trial that began all the way back in January.
And yet, as the jury enters its eighth day of deliberations on Friday, the video confession may not be enough to convict Hernandez, 54, of the boy’s kidnapping and murder. Why?
The answer begins with Hernandez’s defense. Defense attorney Harvey Fishbein has said that Hernandez, a disabled factory worker from Maple Shade, New Jersey, “has visions” and “hears voices.”
“He cannot distinguish between what is real and what is not,” Fishbein said in his opening remarks in January. The lawyer has argued throughout the trial that Hernandez’s so-called confession was actually a product of his mind, the disturbing fantasy of a mentally ill man, but a fantasy nonetheless. He claims that the confession came as the result of intense police pressure.
The defense concluded by pointing to another suspect, convicted child molester Jose A. Ramos, as the real killer.
But the videotaped confession is not the only time Hernandez has admitted to the crime, if the prosecution is to be believed. Daisy Rivera, Hernandez’s ex-wife, testified that her husband told her he killed “a young man” before they got married.
And in 2012 Hernandez allegedly confessed to a church prayer group that he had killed a child. It was that confession that prompted authorities to arrest him in the first place.
“The defendant never took any of it back,” prosecutor Joan Illuzzi-Orbon said in her closing arguments. “He wants to unburden himself. He just doesn’t want to pay the price.”
A Confused Jury?
But the jury appears to be having trouble deciding whom to believe. Since breaking for deliberations on April 15, they’ve made numerous requests of the judge, indicating intense debate over the case. Below, we review what requests have been made thus far – and what they mean for the outcome of the trial.
On April 16, the jury asked for Hernandez’s medical records, his videotaped confession and a readback of Rivera’s testimony, CBS News reports. As has been noted, Hernandez reportedly confessed to multiple people throughout the ’70s and ’80s, but the story has been inconsistent, which the defense argued was a sign that he is delusional. By requesting these materials, the jury was likely checking the stories against one another as well as informing themselves about Hernandez’s mental state.
The next day, the jury asked for the card with Miranda warnings that Hernandez initialed after waiving his right to remain silent, as well as the missing child poster he was shown during the seven-hour interrogation that led to his confession. In this request, the jury appears to be seeking to understand how Hernandez’s confession was obtained – and whether it indeed came under duress.
When deliberations resumed on Monday, the jury next requested the weather report on the day Etan died. Hernandez recalled that day – May 25, 1979 – as being sunny and clear, when in fact it was dark and gloomy. This could be a sign of Hernandez’s poor memory – or alternatively, a sign that he did, in fact, make the story up.
Then on Tuesday, the jurors sought clarification of the judge’s instructions regarding “the legal requirement of convicting a defendant on his/her words alone.” That is, they asked whether a person could be convicted of a crime on words alone.
“Under our law, a person may not be convicted of an offense solely upon evidence of a confession or admission made by that person without additional proof that the offense charged has been committed,” Justice Maxwell Wiley told jurors Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reports. Without any physical evidence in the crime, the prosecution’s case largely rests on Hernandez’s confession.
That day, the jury also asked to review testimony from two psychiatrists, both of whom spoke to Hernandez following his arrest and heard an account of how he claimed he killed Etan. Again, this request was likely made to compare the various accounts Hernandez has given over the years.
On Wednesday, jurors asked for a list of witnesses, exhibits and agreements that both sides made on matters of evidence. They also asked to review testimony from Etan’s childhood friend, who saved a seat for him on the bus the day he vanished, The New York Times reports.
Chelsea Altman, now 42, testified that Etan had told her about an adult friend named Johnny in the days before he disappeared, which would seemingly support the defense’s theory that Hernandez is innocent.
And then on Thursday, they requested a computer with Excel to “organize their thoughts,” CBS News reports, as well as yet more readbacks, this time the testimony of former federal prosecutor Stuart GraBois and former FBI agent Mary Galligan, both witnesses for the defense.
The request seems to signal that jurors are truly considering Ramos as a suspect in Etan’s disappearance. GraBois previously testified that Ramos told him he was 90 percent sure he tried to sexually assault Etan on the day he disappeared, according to NY1.
Ramos told Galligan that he was with a different boy named “Jimmy” at the time of Etan’s disappearance, though he later admitted that he could have been with Etan, the New York Daily News reports.
However, Ramos, who is currently in prison in Pennsylvania in an unrelated child abuse case, has denied abducting and killing Etan, though a civil court later found him liable for the boy’s death in 2004, according to CBS News.
All in all, it could be quite a while before the jury comes to a verdict as they wrestle with the evidence presented.
“I don’t know how you can look at Ramos, and the evidence against Ramos, and be able to ignore Ramos in this case,” Fishbein told reporters on Thursday. “In order to convict Pedro Hernandez, they have to exclude Ramos. I think that’s a very difficult thing to do.”
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