A New Jersey man who confessed to the 1979 killing of Etan Patz should stand trial for murder and kidnapping in the 6-year-old boy's disappearance, a judge ruled on Wednesday.
An attorney for Pedro Hernandez, 51, of Maple Shade, New Jersey, had asked the judge to throw out the indictment, arguing that the confession alone was not legally sufficient to support the charges. Under New York law, a confession must be corroborated by some evidence that the crime in question occurred, though the statute is considered by legal experts to set an extremely low bar.
But in a very brief hearing, Justice Maxwell Wiley ruled in state Supreme Court in Manhattan that the trial may proceed, finding there is enough evidence to try Hernandez on the felony charges.
Police said Hernandez in May 2012 confessed to a chilling crime that has long haunted New Yorkers, saying he had lured the boy near his family home in Manhattan's Soho neighborhood and strangled him on May 25, 1979.
Hernandez, who worked in the 1970s at a nearby deli, no longer admits to the crime, said his lawyer, Harvey Fishbein.
Patz had disappeared while walking alone for the first time to a school bus stop, and his case helped focus national attention on the issue of missing children. He was one of the first missing children to have their photograph posted on the side of a milk carton as part of an appeal for information from the public.
Patz's body was never found but he was legally declared dead in 2001.
In the months after Hernandez's confession, a grand jury indicted him on two counts of second-degree murder and one count of first-degree kidnapping.
Fishbein asked the judge to throw out the indictment, noting that authorities appear to have no physical evidence to corroborate Hernandez's confession.
"You can't support the indictment solely with these statements," Fishbein has said. "There is no crime scene here. There were no witnesses to a crime."
He has also said the confession is false and that Hernandez suffers from mental illness, including hallucinations.
A spokeswoman for the Manhattan district attorney's office, Erin Duggan, has said prosecutors believe Hernandez's confession will withstand scrutiny.
After the court hearing on Wednesday, Fishbein said he would argue the confession should be thrown out because it was obtained in violation of Hernandez's constitutional rights.
"There will be a hearing to find out if the statements were constitutionally taken. He was held for seven, eight hours before he was told he had the right to remain silent. He has a psychiatric condition and he has a low IQ," Fishbein told reporters.
For years, Jose Ramos, a friend of Patz's babysitter, was the prime suspect in the case, although he was never criminally charged. Ramos was found liable for Patz's death in a 2004 civil case.
Ramos, 69, was released in November from a Pennsylvania prison after serving 20 years for molesting children but was immediately rearrested on other charges.
Fishbein has maintained that Ramos remains a "far more likely" suspect in Patz's disappearance than Hernandez.
(Additional reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Cynthia Osterman)