Even with evidence as compelling as a full confession to murder, prosecutors making the case that Pedro Hernandez killed 6-year-old Etan Patz in Manhattan 33 years ago have their work cut out for them, legal experts said Friday.
Police say they have little evidence besides the confession so far, and in New York a confession alone is not enough to win a conviction.
"Starting now, they're going to try to corroborate every syllable of that confession," said Frank Schroeder, a former prosecutor in Nassau's Major Offense Bureau. "If he says he took the child to a basement and there was a sink in the corner, they're going to have to find out whether there was, in fact, a sink there."
Under state law, a confession alone isn't sufficient to obtain a criminal conviction. That's because innocent people have been known to confess to crimes, said Richard Klein, a criminal law professor at Touro Law School in Central Islip.
In some cases, police have elicited false confessions out of suspects. In others, people have confessed to crimes they didn't commit due to mental illness or a craving for infamy, lawyers and experts said.
"Our instinct is always to say, 'He confessed. What more do you need?' " Klein said. "But people can have all kinds of motivations for falsely confessing to a crime."
Investigators will need to show that Hernandez, 51, of Maple Shade, N.J., was in the neighborhood the day Etan went missing, and that he had opportunity to commit the crime. Then they have to back up any details Hernandez gave about how and where he committed the crime, experts said.
Investigators will probably try to speak to anyone whom Hernandez knew well 33 years ago or has been close to since then, because if he's guilty it's likely that at some point he told someone what he did. At the time of the boy's disappearance, Hernandez worked in SoHo, down the block from the Patz family.
In cases where a body is found, and a medical examiner finds that a homicide took place, that alone is enough to corroborate a confession, experts said.
In this case, with no body ever found, prosecutors will have to make a circumstantial case that Etan was killed.
Brian Griffin, a Garden City criminal defense lawyer, said the passage of time may actually help prosecutors. After all, Etan has never been heard from and, Griffin said, "A child that age doesn't just leave."
Stephen Scaring, a former Nassau major case bureau chief who is now a defense lawyer, said if Hernandez is truly guilty and remorseful, prosecutors' evidence may not be put to the test at trial. "It's going to be a complicated case, but if this guy is legitimate, my guess is he'll probably wind up pleading guilty," Scaring said.