Etan Patz disappeared in 1979 and has never been seen since. Almost to the day 33 years later NYPD arrested Pedro Hernandez in connection to the kidnapping. Hernandez had never been seen publicly since the arrest. Until yesterday.
The 51-year-old Hernandez shuffled into a Manhattan courtroom today, clean-shaven and looking gaunter than earlier photos suggested. The hearing lasted just a few minutes during which time defense attorney Harvey Fishbein told the court his client was mentally fit to stand trial. Hernandez had been hospitalized in the psychiatric ward at Bellevue directly after his arrest.
Hernandez remained silent at Thursday’s brief hearing. His formal arraignment is set for December 12, at which time he will plead not guilty to the charges of first-degree kidnapping and second-degree murder a grand jury passed down on Wednesday.
Julie and Stanley Patz, Etan’s parents, did not attend Thursday’s hearing — but the defendant’s family took seats in the gallery. A lawyer representing Hernandez’ wife and daughter told reporters the family denies Hernandez’ guilt: “They don’t believe for a moment anything about this so-called confession,” attorney Robert Gottlieb told the New York Times.
Indeed the defense seems poised to attack Pedro Hernandez’ confession as the delusion of a mentally-ill man manipulated by police investigators. In a post-hearing press conference, Fishbein labelled the confession “the central piece of evidence” in the State’s case, deeming it “very subject to attack and will be the subject of attack.” Fishbein indicated that his client had a long history of schizophrenic hallucinations and that the defense will try to keep the confession out of evidence altogether. If that legal tactic fails, Hernandez’ attorneys will call a succession of psychological experts to provide testimony on the pervasiveness of false confessions.
Questions remain as to what, if any, corroborating evidence investigators have found linking Hernandez to the Patz disappearance. Etan’s body has never been found, and several recent searches in the SoHo area have seemingly come up empty in the search for clues.
While prosecutors have yet to put forward their evidence, several news reports cite some of Hernandez’ friends and family members coming forward with stories of Hernandez confessing to a crime he committed several decades ago. Still, Fishbein remains confident investigators have nothing to pin the crimes on Hernandez but his word: “Nothing that occurs in the course of this trial will answer what actually happened to Etan Patz.”
Another man formerly enmeshed in the Patz saga appeared in a different court on Thursday as well. Jose Ramos, a friend of Patz’ babysitter, had been declared guilty of Patz’ wrongful death back in a New York civil court back in 2004. Released last week from the Pennsylvania prison where he was serving an unrelated child molestation conviction, Ramos was re-arrested immediately for providing an inaccurate living address — a violation of his sex offender status.
When the trial of Pedro Hernandez finally begins next year, the defense will surely bring up the names of earlier suspects in the Patz case: Jose Ramos and Othniel Miller, the superintendent of the nearby building NYPD searched with cadaver dogs earlier this year.
Then it will be up to a New York City jury to determine fact from fiction — whether a confessed killer can be taken at his word.