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Etan Patz case: Despite confession, a trial would be tricky (+video)

If Pedro Hernandez sticks to his confession and is found to be mentally competent, a judge will simply sentence him for killing schoolboy Etan Patz in 1979. But if he were to recant, prosecutors would face a hard decision.

By Ron SchererStaff writer / May 25, 2012

Shop J.F. Rey Eyewear Design currently stands at the location where Etan Patz disappeared 33 years ago in New York May 25. Pedro Hernandez, the confessed killer of the Manhattan schoolboy, was scheduled for arraignment on Friday.

Andrew Kelly/Reuters

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New York

Pedro Hernandez, the confessed killer of Manhattan schoolboy Etan Patz 33 years ago, may never go to a jury – if he sticks to his confession and is found to be mentally competent.

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Pedro Hernandez told family members that he'd done "something bad."

In that event, a judge will simply set a sentencing date after Mr. Hernandez undergoes extensive psychological testing.

If that happens, it will be the final chapter in a case that riveted much of the nation in 1979, when Etan, then 6 years old, never made it to school on the first day he was allowed to walk there on his own. At first, he was assumed to be lost. Then speculation arose that Etan had been kidnapped. His photo – showing his infectious smile and blond locks – appeared on milk cartons around the nation. The case reminded many of the kidnapping of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s son back in 1932.

However, if Hernandez were to change his mind and recant his confession, prosecutors would face a difficult decision: whether to put him on trial without corroborating evidence other than the confession.

Young Etan’s body has never been discovered. According to the New York Police Department, who charged Hernandez on Thursday with second-degree murder, the suspect said he placed the youngster’s body in a bag that was deposited in the trash. A month later, Hernandez, who was then 18, moved out of the city.

The key issue will be Hernandez's mental state at the time of the confession. “If he recants his confession, then it’s an issue of what level of confidence the district attorney and the police have in the original confession,” says former federal prosecutor Alan Kaufman, now a partner at the law firm Kelley Drye in New York. “If he is psychologically unstable and there is no independent evidence, the district attorney may not be confident he is the killer.”

To determine Hernandez's mental state when he confessed to the killing, mental health professionals will question him. On Friday, according to press reports, Hernandez was being examined in Bellevue Hospital, which has a robust mental-health division, and had been placed on suicide watch. He had not yet met with his court-appointed attorney, and it was unclear at time of writing whether his arraignment originally scheduled for Friday would take place. 

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