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.
(Page 2 of 2)
According to press reports, the confession was videotaped in Camden, N.J., where Hernandez was first questioned. NYPD detectives were among those present during the interview.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The fact that the confession was videotaped “makes the confession more powerful,” says James Cohen, a defense attorney and a professor at Fordham Law School in New York. “It is less subject to claims [that] the police were feeding the subject information known to the police but also only known to the killer.”
In missing person’s cases and potential murder cases, the police try to hold onto a piece of evidence that is known only to them and the alleged killer, says Mr. Kaufman. If someone claims to have committed the crime but repeats only information that has appeared in the newspapers, the confession is considered less credible.
Law enforcement officials "would test the confession with something like that,” says Kaufman.
According to NYPD Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, Hernandez took police detectives to the location where he allegedly committed the crime. Hernandez appeared remorseful and glad to finally confess to it, said Mr. Kelly. However, it’s still not clear why the boy was murdered.
“There had to be something more involved; it would be part of the questions asked of Hernandez,” says Kaufman.
However, the possibility of false confession cannot be overlooked. “There is the phenomenon of false confessions, where people just confess for reasons people find inexplicable,” says Mr. Cohen. “So his testimony will be examined by psychologists to see how much it squares up with what is known about false confessions.”
For example, after the Lindberghs' 20-month-old son was kidnapped and murdered, more than 100 people went to the police and confessed, says Kaufman. The actual murderer, Bruno Hauptmann, was found two years later and was ultimately executed in New Jersey in 1936.
If Hernandez were to plead not guilty, Kaufman wonders whether the case would ever go to trial. “Reconstructing the crime 33 years later is very difficult,” he says. “You would have to go back and talk to everyone in that neighborhood to see if anyone remembers seeing Hernandez with Etan when he disappeared. It’s a long shot.”
Cohen, however, expects that prosecutors would proceed even if Hernandez were to recant. “The prosecutor is in it for gold unless God intervenes,” he says.