The man on trial again for murder in the case of a 6-year-old New York City boy who vanished 37 years ago is innocent, and his surprise confession in one of the nation’s most influential missing children’s cases was wrongly obtained, his lawyer said Monday.
Pedro Hernandez admitted in 2012 to choking Etan Patz in the basement of a convenience store where he worked as a teenage stock boy. The sandy-haired first-grader vanished on his way to school on May 25, 1979. His body was never found. The case helped to make missing children a national cause in the United States, and Etan’s mother became a national advocate.
On Monday, defense attorney Harvey Fishbein said his 56-year-old client was mentally ill and coerced into a confession by clever police officers bent on closing a decades-old case.
“Pedro Hernandez is an odd, limited and vulnerable man,” he said. “Pedro Hernandez is an innocent man.”
Prosecutors say Hernandez hid a brutal secret for more than three decades, and depicted him as a cunning criminal.
Hernandez was tried once before; the case ended in a hung jury after all but one juror voted to convict. Some members of the first jury attended the second trial, sitting in the audience Monday with Etan’s father, Stan Patz.
The anniversary of Etan’s disappearance became National Missing Children’s Day. His parents helped press for new laws that established a national hotline and made it easier for law enforcement agencies to share information about missing children. Frightened parents soon stopped letting children walk alone to school and play unsupervised in their neighborhoods.
Law enforcement launched an exhaustive search that spanned decades and continents. A tip led police to Hernandez, of Maple Shade, New Jersey, in 2012 after the case resurfaced again in the news. Hernandez’s brother-in-law had contacted police with his suspicions, and Hernandez confessed after more than six hours.
“Something just took over me,” Hernandez said in a taped confession. “I’m being honest. I feel bad what I did.”
On Monday, Fishbein sketched out a possible alternative suspect: Jose Ramos, a convicted child abuser.
Ramos knew Etan through a woman who walked Etan and other children home from school during a bus strike. Ramos danced around a confession for years, implying to federal agents that he may have committed some crime, but he was never charged and he denied killing the boy. Ramos remains in jail on a previous conviction.
“There is substantial evidence against Jose Ramos,” Fishbein said. “If you believe there is any remote possibility that Jose Ramos caused the disappearance of Etan Patz than you must find Mr. Hernandez not guilty. That’s what reasonable doubt is.”
Ramos’ shadow loomed large over the first trial, too. He had already been found liable for Etan’s death after Stan Patz sued.
It wasn’t until after the mistrial that Stan Patz said he now believes Hernandez was his son’s killer.