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Suspect in Etan Patz case to plead not guilty, lawyer says

November 16, 2012|By Michael Muskal
  • Pedro Hernandez appears in Manhattan criminal court with his attorney Harvey Fishbein. Hernandez is charged with the 1979 killing of Etan Patz. His next court date is set for Dec. 12.
Pedro Hernandez appears in Manhattan criminal court with his attorney… (Louis Lanzano/Pool )

The convenience store worker accused of killing Etan Patz in one of the nation's most celebrated child disappearance cases will return to court Dec. 12 when he will get a chance to formally plead not guilty.

Pedro Hernandez made his first court appearance Thursday, but never spoke. He has been indicted on murder and kidnapping charges in the 1979 disappearance of Patz, the 6-year-old boy in Manhattan. The charges came after Hernandez confessed to police.

Hernandez is schizophrenic and prone to hallucinations, his lawyer Harvey Fishbein told reporters after his client appeared in court.

“We didn't get an opportunity to enter a plea,” Fishbein said outside court in New York. “Just so there's no question, the plea in this case will be not guilty.

“The really sad part of this case is that it will take time, it will take money … and it will not tell the city what happened to Etan Patz,” Fishbein said.

Patz’s disappearance en route to a school bus on May 25, 1979, shook the city and eventually the nation, helping spark a movement to deal with cases of missing children and even the designation of a day – May 25 – commemorating their plight. His photo was one of the first to go on a milk carton as a way of publicizing the issue.

Police investigated, but never made an arrest in the case. Patz was declared dead in 2001 and in a 2004 civil case, Jose Antonio Ramos, a convicted child molester, was declared responsible for the boy’s death. Ramos was never prosecuted. Ramos had been scheduled to be released from a Pennsylvania prison recently, but he was immediately rearrested on a charge of failing to register properly as a sex offender.

Hernandez, 51, was a teenage stock clerk at a convenience store when Patz disappeared. He is a married father with no criminal record and was living in Maple Shade, N.J., when police approached him based on a tip they had received.

Investigators say Hernandez confessed that he had lured the boy into the bodega, or grocery store, with the promise of a soda. He told police that he led the child to the basement, choked him and left his body in a bag of trash about a block away.

It is unclear if there is any evidence other than Hernandez’s confession. Under New York law, a confession might be enough for a conviction, but false confessions are common in cases as celebrated as the Patz disappearance.

Fishbein said the defense planned to have expert witnesses explain why people sometimes admit to crimes they didn't commit.

“It's a hard concept to understand. But it's a reality. And it's a scary reality,” he told reporters.

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