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Etan Patz murder case judge says accuracy of confession no factor in whether to admit it

Pedro Hernandez, right, appears in Manhattan criminal court

Pedro Hernandez, right, appears in Manhattan criminal court with his attorney Harvey Fishbein on Nov. 15, 2012. Credit: AP

The judge in the Etan Patz murder case said Tuesday he won't consider the accuracy of defendant Pedro Hernandez's purported confession at a hearing to decide if the New Jersey man voluntarily waived his rights and the statements should be admitted at trial.

State Supreme Court Justice Maxwell Wiley said the reliability of the 2012 confession by Hernandez to killing Patz in 1979 would be for a jury to assess, and had no bearing on whether he made a competent decision to speak to police.

"I just don't see that evidence of the accuracy of certain statements by the defendant about events 35 years ago are necessarily relevant to whether he knew the import of the rights he was giving up," Wiley said.

Six-year-old Patz's 1979 disappearance on his way to school in Manhattan's Soho neighborhood was never solved. Hernandez, 53, a Soho bodega worker in 1979, has bipolar disorder and a borderline IQ. His lawyers say he imagined the crime and want his confession -- the only known evidence against him -- thrown out.

Wiley's decision to not get into the substance of the confession came one day after it was played publicly in court for the first time, as prosecutors and the defense clashed over whether some of Hernandez's statements to police showed he wasn't thinking straight and was being manipulated.

Defense lawyer Harvey Fishbein of Manhattan said his client misstated the weather on the day Patz disappeared, said that he put the boy's book bag in a location where police later searched unsuccessfully, and reported he was arrested for indecent exposure in a New Jersey case where police find no record.

"The issue is what is his mental process -- his ability to knowingly and intelligently waive his rights?" Fishbein said. ". . . We believe the fact his statement was not accurate is relevant to what he means when he says, 'I understand my rights.' "

But prosecutor Joan Illuzzi-Orbon urged the judge to consider only whether Hernandez was "delusional" or out-of-it when he decided to confess. At trial, any factual discrepancies will be outweighed by evidence of guilt, she said.

"The people have a very, very long list of things Mr. Hernandez has said that are spot-on," she said, "things that he would never have known had he not actually committed this crime, things that are so detailed and which the police had never even heard before he spoke to them."

She declined later to specify what things Hernandez said that only Patz's abductor would have known. The confession hearings resume Thursday.

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