Pedro Hernandez will stand trial for the 1979 killing of 6-year-old Etan… (Louis Lanzano / Associated…)
NEW YORK -- A man who confessed to strangling 6-year-old Etan Patz, whose disappearance 34 years ago remains one of the nation's most baffling missing-persons cases, will stand trial for the boy's murder, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Judge Maxwell Wiley's decision came over the objections of the lawyer defending Pedro Hernandez, whose confession last year was a stunning twist in a case that galvanized national attention to the plight of missing children and introduced the idea of putting missing kids' pictures on milk cartons.
Defense attorney Harvey Fishbein says that Hernandez suffers from severe psychiatric problems, has a low IQ and confessed only after several hours of interrogation by police. All of those factors make his confession highly suspect, Fishbein said.
"We ... are arguing that his confession is a false confession. People confess to things that they did not do for a number of reasons," Fishbein told reporters outside the courthouse in Manhattan after Wiley rejected his motion to dismiss the charges against Hernandez.
The 52-year-old Hernandez sat silently during the brief court hearing, staring straight ahead and with his hands cuffed behind his back. Fishbein said Hernandez had been receiving psychiatric treatment in jail.
Hernandez, of Maple Shade, N.J., pleaded not guilty in December to kidnapping and murdering Etan on May 25, 1979, when Hernandez was working at a market near the boy's home in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood. He had told police he lured Etan into the store with promises of a soda, strangled him, and disposed of his body in an alley.
The body was never found, and Fishbein said there was no evidence pointing to Hernandez.
Etan vanished while walking to the bus stop to go to school, the first time his parents had allowed him to walk to the bus alone. His face became one of the first to appear on milk cartons as efforts to find him and other missing children sparked a national campaign for more aggressive efforts to solve such cases.
Hernandez's confession raised questions about the presumed involvement in Etan's disappearance of a man serving time in an unrelated case in Pennsylvania. That man, Jose Antonio Ramos, is a convicted pedophile who knew Etan because his girlfriend had baby-sat him.
Some investigators as well as Etan's parents, Stan and Julie Patz, became convinced that Ramos had abducted the boy. In 2001, his parents had Etan declared legally dead, and in 2004 a Manhattan civil judge declared Ramos guilty, although he denied it.
Fishbein said he feared that the focus on Hernandez would keep investigators from pursuing other possible culprits, including Ramos.
Hernandez's next court appearance was scheduled for July 31. No trial date has been set.
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