Pedro Hernandez hadn’t attracted much attention from police before detectives came to his suburban New Jersey door on a tip one morning in May 2012. Seven hours later, the investigators’ video cameras started rolling as he admitted killing 6-year-old Etan Patz, whose 1979 disappearance helped ignite a nationwide missing-children’s movement.
The circumstances surrounding that confession are set to be scrutinized at a hearing, starting Monday. The answer rests on whether he was properly advised of his rights to stay silent and consult an attorney, and whether he was mentally capable of waiving them. Hernandez’ lawyer has said his client is mentally ill and has an IQ at the border of intellectual disability.
“Does he understand the consequences of his actions? That is a huge part of what we’re talking about,” said Denis Keyes, a College of Charleston special education professor who studies mental competency of suspects. If Hernandez behaves and thinks like a child, Keyes said, “then he will never fully understand the importance that goes with the Miranda warnings.”
Hernandez, 53, worked at a Manhattan corner store nearby when Patz disappeared while walking to his school bus stop on May 25, 1979. The boy has never been found, despite a search that stretched across oceans and decades.
More than three decades later, police got a lead that brought them to Hernandez. After agreeing to go to a police station near his home in Maple Shade, N.J., he was questioned for about seven hours before detectives advised him of his so-called Miranda rights. They then recorded him saying he lured Etan into the store with a promise of a soda and killed him.
The upcoming hearing is solely to determine whether the confession can be used in court, not whether the statement itself is true.
A judge will examine the timing of the Miranda warning, an often-disputed legal issue that turns partly on whether a suspect felt free to leave during any questioning before the warning.