The attorney for former bodega worker Pedro Hernandez said that his mentally troubled client would not challenge his competence to stand trial as Hernandez made his first court appearance Thursday since being indicted on a charge of murder in the 1979 disappearance of 6-year-old Etan Patz.
With his wife and daughter watching from the gallery, Hernandez, 51, shuffled into Manhattan Criminal Court in a gray shirt and handcuffs, but was silent during a brief proceeding as a judge ordered his continued detention at Riker's Island and set a Dec. 12 date for Hernandez to enter a plea.
Afterward, defense attorney Harvey Fishbein told reporters that while Hernandez was fit to stand trial, his history of schizophrenia, delusions and low IQ would undercut a case based almost exclusively on Hernandez's statements during a May interrogation by police.
"Just so there's no question, the plea in this case will be not guilty," he said. "The statements by my client are not reliable. They are false confessions."
Hernandez's wife and daughter didn't comment as they were leaving court, but their attorney said the family was surprised that District Attorney Cyrus Vance decided to go ahead with the case and was troubled by news reports that police may have manipulated the highly religious Hernandez by praying with him during questioning.
"They have read the reports," said attorney Robert Gottlieb. "They're bothered by everything about the interrogation."
Police had targeted two other men as prime suspects in Etan's disappearance from his SoHo neighborhood on May 25, 1979. The name of Hernandez, who had worked in the neighborhood as a 19-year-old, surfaced in a tip from an associate during a rise in publicity about the case this spring.
Under interrogation in May, police say, Hernandez admitted luring Etan into the basement of the bodega where he worked, suffocating the boy and disposing of his body in the trash. Police say he made previous inculpatory statements to others. But there is no public evidence of a motive or of Hernandez's involvement in any other child assaults.
Fishbein said that, despite intensive investigation since May, police found no evidence to corroborate Hernandez's admissions. The criminal justice system, he said, is rife with cases of confessions from defendants whose vulnerabilities were exploited by police, but who were later shown to be innocent by DNA tests.
"People do confess to things they didn't do," he said. "It's been scientifically shown."
He also said the defense might use evidence compiled by police against other suspects to raise doubts about the case against Hernandez at trial. One suspect, Jose Ramos, who was dating Etan's baby-sitter, was later convicted of child molestation in another case, and was eventually ruled responsible for Etan's disappearance in a civil case filed by his parents.
"I expect to receive all the evidence in police files against him," Fishbein said.
Vance's office has said it believes Hernandez's confession is reliable, and a jury should decide his guilt. NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly said in May that Hernandez appeared "remorseful" and detectives believed his confession was sincere.
The district attorney had no comment Thursday.