A suspect with a low IQ understood his rights when he told investigators two years ago that he asphyxiated 6-year-old Etan Patz in 1979, a judge ruled Monday, allowing prosecutors to use the confession that appears to be their key evidence in a notorious missing children’s case.
The 53-year-old suspect, Pedro Hernandez, has pleaded not guilty to killing Patz, one of the first missing children ever pictured on a milk carton. Hernandez’ defense has said he falsely confessed.
Manhattan State Supreme Court Justice Maxwell Wiley wasn’t tasked with determining whether the admission was true — just whether it was obtained legally and whether Hernandez comprehended what he was doing when he waived his right to stay silent.
Hernandez’s decision to speak was “knowing and intelligent,” Wiley wrote. While Hernandez has a very low IQ, his overall performance on tests of how well he understood the rights, his actual decision to waive them and “his basic ability to make his way in the world over a period of almost 40 years compel this conclusion,” the judge wrote.
After decades of investigation that stretched as far as Israel, Hernandez emerged as a suspect in 2012. He’d been a stock clerk at a store in Etan’s neighborhood when the boy disappeared while walking to his school bus stop.
After more than six hours of questioning, Hernandez confessed, calmly telling investigators on video that he killed Etan and what he did with the body.
“I was nervous; my legs were jumping,” Hernandez said on the tape. “I wanted to let go, but I just couldn’t let go. I felt like something just took over me.”
He was read his rights after implicating himself, shortly before the video began. Although Hernandez had periodically asked to leave earlier in the questioning, he had voluntarily agreed to continue, Wiley found.
The confession appears to be the key to the case. Authorities have not pointed to any physical or scientific evidence against Hernandez, and his defense has said there is none.
Jury selection is expected to start in early January for a trial that will likely hinge on whether jurors believe the confession was true.