Judge: Confession can be used in missing boy trial
NEW YORK (AP) -- A suspect with a low IQ understood his rights when he told investigators two years ago that he choked a 6-year-old boy to death in 1979, a judge ruled Monday, allowing prosecutors to use the confession that appears to be their key evidence in a notorious missing children's case.
The 53-year-old suspect, Pedro Hernandez, has pleaded not guilty to killing 6-year-old Etan Patz, one of the first missing children ever pictured on a milk carton. Hernandez' defense has said he falsely confessed.
Manhattan State Supreme Court Justice Maxwell Wiley wasn't tasked with determining whether the admission was true - just whether it was obtained legally and whether Hernandez comprehended what he was doing when he waived his right to stay silent.
Hernandez's decision to speak was "knowing and intelligent," Wiley wrote. While Hernandez has a very low IQ, his overall performance on tests of how well he understood the rights, his actual decision to waive them and "his basic ability to make his way in the world over a period of almost 40 years compel this conclusion," the judge wrote.
After decades of investigation that stretched as far as Israel, Hernandez emerged as a suspect in 2012. He'd been a stock clerk at a store in Etan's neighborhood when the boy disappeared while walking to his school bus stop.
After more than six hours of questioning, Hernandez confessed, calmly telling investigators on video that he choked Etan in the store basement. He described putting the boy, who was still alive, into a plastic bag, then putting the bag inside a box and dumping it nearby.
"I was nervous; my legs were jumping," Hernandez said on the tape. "I wanted to let go, but I just couldn't let go. I felt like something just took over me."
He was read his rights after implicating himself, shortly before the video began. Although Hernandez had periodically asked to leave earlier in the questioning, he had voluntarily agreed to continue, Wiley found.
In the 1980s, Hernandez also allegedly told a prayer group and others that he'd harmed a child in New York.
The confession appears to be the key to the case. Authorities have not pointed to any physical or scientific evidence against Hernandez, and his defense has said there is none.
Jury selection is expected to start in early January for a trial that will likely hinge on whether jurors believe the confession was true.
"We're looking forward to that, and we're ready to go," defense lawyer Harvey Fishbein said. "Anyone who sees these confessions will understand that when the police were finished with him, Mr. Hernandez believed that he killed Etan Patz - but that doesn't mean that he actually did."
The Manhattan district attorney's office declined to comment.
Fishbein has said Hernandez has taken anti-psychotic medication for years and was diagnosed after his arrest with schizotypal personality disorder, which causes him "cognitive and perceptual distortions." In his confession, Hernandez says he has had visions of his dead mother.
His IQ, about 70, puts him in the bottom 2 percent of the population, a defense psychological expert testified during a hearing this fall.
Hernandez' defense argued he couldn't understand his right to remain silent.
Prosecutors say the confession was real and properly obtained. They noted that he had the intellectual capacity to get through 11th grade without special education, hold jobs, successfully apply for Social Security disability benefits, and discuss religion.
Etan's body was never found. The day he vanished became National Missing Children's Day.
His father, Stan Patz, declined to comment Monday.
Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter (at) jennpeltz.