A Manhattan state judge ruled Monday that confessions by ex-bodega worker Pedro Hernandez to the 1979 killing of 6-year-old Etan Patz were admissible in court despite his low IQ and history of mental illness, paving the way for the notorious case to be tried next year.
Justice Maxwell Wiley said that Hernandez, 53, of Maple Shade, New Jersey, "was capable of understanding and appreciating the nature of the rights he was giving up" when he told police after seven hours of unrecorded questioning that he had snatched and strangled Patz.
"The defendant attended high school and, though not a high performing or even average student, passed most academic courses," the judge wrote. "Defendant was also a fully functioning adult: a husband and a father with a history of full employment."
The ruling, following four weeks of hearings in September, sets the stage for a trial beginning Jan. 5 that could bring closure to the 35-year-old mystery of what happened to Patz, who disappeared on May 25, 1979, in SoHo on his way to catch a school bus.
Patz's father, Stan, did not comment on the ruling as he left court. Harvey Fishbein, Hernandez's lawyer, said it was not unexpected and he was confident a jury would reject a case based solely on a confession, with no known physical corroboration.
"This decision didn't go to the reliability of the confessions, just that they're admissible," said Fishbein, who contends Hernandez fantasized that he killed Patz. "We've been looking forward for 21/2 years to finally get in front of a jury and end this prosecution."
Fishbein also said that at trial next year the defense intends to call as a witness Jose Ramos, a convicted child molester who knew Patz's baby-sitter and was successfully sued for wrongful death by Patz's parents in 2004.
"If there's someone here who should be prosecuted, it's Jose Ramos," Fishbein said. "So the jury should see him here."
Police focused on Hernandez, who worked in a bodega near Patz's bus stop in 1979, when a relative alerted them in 2012 that he had indicated privately to friends and family that he had some responsibility in the disappearance.
He first admitted to the killing after a day of interrogation by NYPD detectives at a New Jersey police station, telling police he lured Patz into the basement of the bodega by offering a soda, strangled him, put the body in a fruit box and left it in a nearby alley.
Police then turned on a video to record him confessing, had him sign a confession, and recorded him again in New York, confessing and walking police around SoHo.
Fishbein contended police should have given Miranda warnings to Hernandez before they ever began talking to him, and pressured him into a false confession when he didn't fully understand his right to remain silent or stop talking after he started.