Etan Patz case: Will self-admitted killer's prayer group confession hold up?

If charges are brought against Pedro Hernandez for the killing of Etan Patz, the case could turn on whether confession made to a prayer group is confidential like that made to a priest.

Mark Lennihan/AP
A newspaper with a photograph of Etan Patz is part of a makeshift memorial in the SoHo neighborhood of New York, Monday. For prosecutors, the work is just beginning after the astonishing arrest last week of a man who police say confessed to strangling the 6-year-old New York City boy 33 years ago in one of the nation's most bewildering missing children's cases.

The sister of Pedro Hernandez, the self-confessed killer of 6-year-old Etan Patz, says she heard her brother admit to a prayer group in the early 1980s that he had killed a child.

Will that confession stand up in court if the case ever goes to trial? Or, will the confession be considered “privileged” information the same as if it was told to a priest in a confessional?

The issue is important because so little evidence exists for a crime that was committed in 1979. According to news reports, the police are now trying to learn more about the garbage collections 33 years ago, since Mr. Hernandez claims to have stuffed the little boy’s body in a bag or box and put it out with the trash a few blocks from the site of the alleged crime. But finding any corroborating evidence such as the body or someone who saw Etan talking to Hernandez is still a long shot.

“In general, statements that are closer to the event seem more credible, more persuasive,” says Julie Seaman, an associate professor at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta. “If it [the confession] was done in a therapeutic context it is somewhat more credible,” she says. “But, in this case, I still don’t think it adds up to very much.”

The problem for the district attorney, defense lawyers point out, is the issue of whether or not Hernandez is mentally competent. Hernandez is expected to undergo extensive psychological examination to make that determination. “It is important not to rush to judgment about whoever did this,” says Annemarie McAvoy, a former federal prosecutor and an adjunct professor at Fordham Law School in New York. “Maybe in his twisted mind he has convinced himself he is responsible, or it could be some kind of dream world he is in – he may not have even seen him that morning.”

If the district attorney does decide to find people who were part of the prayer group, it is likely they would have to testify and could not claim his statement was made in confidentiality. “A prayer service is not a confession,” says Ms. McAvoy, who also has her own legal consulting business.

The distinction is important because most states have laws giving priests and penitents confidentiality privileges. “Priests do not have to go to court or testify about confessions,” she says. “Most priests are hesitant about talking about anything said in a confessional.”

In fact, many ministers say that confessions put them in a difficult position. For example, some church insurance policies require ministers to report certain crimes. Hardly any state exempts clergy from reporting a confession about child abuse.

“When someone comes and says they want to confess, I tell them right upfront, I am mandated to turn in crimes,” says the Rev. Jim Barnes, national minister of the Evangelical Association of Reformed and Congregational Christian Churches in St. Louis.

Even if it’s not mandated by law, some clergy say they feel a sense of duty to report confessed crimes to law enforcement. “I would tell a person upfront, you have told me something I cannot hold in confidence,” says Rev. Bob Crilley of the First Presbyterian Church in Grapevine, Texas. “I want to be as transparent as possible.”

In Hernandez’s case, it appears that about 50 people who were in the prayer group did not report his confession to the police. (His sister has told reporters she did tell the Camden police, but the police say they have no record of the conversation.) While there may be a moral obligation to report a crime, there is no obligation to do so, says McAvoy, pointing out that the person hearing such a statement may not even believe the person saying it.

“You will not be prosecuted for not going,” she says. “But, if you are helping someone evade the police you can be prosecuted.”

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