A defense lawyer in the retrial of Pedro Hernandez for allegedly killing 6-year-old Etan Patz hammered a one-time suspect, convicted child molester Jose Ramos, early and often as the real culprit as summations began Monday in the case stemming from the boy’s 1979 disappearance.
“Jose Ramos is a serial predator with motive, means and opportunity to have made Etan Patz his victim,” said lawyer Harvey Fishbein during his daylong closing argument in Manhattan Supreme Court. “ . . . Jose Ramos is reasonable doubt all on his own.”
Hernandez, 55, of Maple Shade, New Jersey, was a clerk in a SoHo neighborhood bodega next to the bus stop where Etan was headed when he disappeared without a trace. Hernandez emerged as a suspect in 2012 when a relative tipped police, and he confessed on videotape after a lengthy interrogation.
The two-pronged defense strategy has been to claim the confession stemmed from a mental disorder, and to blame Ramos — a friend of a woman who walked Etan home from school. Ramos once told an FBI agent he met a little boy who “could have been” Etan the day he went missing.
The first trial of Hernandez in 2015 ended in an 11-1 deadlock in favor of conviction. The defense offered both defenses at that trial, but has subtly shifted strategy in the retrial — relying more heavily on former FBI supervisor Mary Galligan to focus suspicion on Ramos, and giving him a more prominent place in opening and closing arguments.
Hernandez, aside from the Patz charges, has no criminal record. But Ramos has a long record of molesting little boys, Fishbein said, displaying pictures of the bearded, bushy haired convict and a Bronx drainpipe where he once tried to lure victims.
“The evidence may not be enough to prove Jose Ramos was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said. “ . . . But what is important is that Ramos is the face of a true pedophile. Ramos is calculating, Ramos is manipulative, and Ramos is a serial offender. He repeatedly molested young, blond, blue-eyed boys.”
Fishbein also targeted the confession, in which Hernandez said that he lured Etan into the basement of the bodega with an offer of a soda, strangled him, put his body into a produce box, and carried it two blocks to a garbage trash bin.
The confession followed lengthy police questioning that was not videotaped. Police took advantage of Hernandez, using a “psychological, subtle and savvy” interrogation to prey on his low IQ and mental state, and feeding him bits of information to get a confession, the lawyer said.
“Pedro Hernandez is an odd, limited and vulnerable man,” Fishbein told the jury. “Pedro Hernandez is an innocent man.”
Hernandez, according to testimony at trial, made several inculpatory statements about something he had done to a boy — at a prayer group, to a friend and to an ex-wife — in private settings, and prosecutors are expected to argue that police merely drew out previous expressions of guilt.
But Fishbein said the details of those various statements were dramatically different from each other and from his final confession, distorting reality as a result of the same mental condition — schizotypal personality disorder — that led him to have hallucinations and see shadows.
Describing Hernandez as an “odd, limited and vulnerable man,” he urged jurors to reject a case with no forensic evidence based entirely on a confession.
“What you have heard is that the only evidence against Mr. Hernandez is his own words — this reliable and inconsistent man,” Fishbein said. “He’s just unreliable. And he’s the only witness against himself.”
The prosecution closing arguments are scheduled for Tuesday.