Etan Patz was six years old when he disappeared on May 25, 1979, in New York. I, too, was six years old in May of 1979. The case would have a profound impact not only on the community but on the way parents would handle their children.
The case remained unsolved for decades. I had not paid attention to this case until it hung, with one juror holding out. One of the first cases the Vanguard Court Watch followed was the second trial of Ernesto and Fermin Galvan in early 2010, and there was a single holdout juror, a UC Davis employee. The first trial had also hung. Ultimately, in the next trial, that holdout juror turned out to be right, and the jurors in the third trial acquitted the brothers on some charges and the DA’s office ultimately dropped the case.
After reading several articles on the mistrial and comments by the lone holdout, who spoke at length in an interview the New York Post (an article I highly recommend you read), I realized that, but for this juror, a potentially innocent man would have gone to prison. In fact, this case reads like it was actually tried in 1979 and the culprit was exonerated after spending 36 years in prison – except this trial took place in 2015 and what you are about to read is both unconscionable and unfathomable, given what we know about false confessions.
The problem with the trial is that the body was never found, and there is no physical evidence tying Pedro Hernandez to the crime. Mr. Hernandez is, in fact, only tied to it because he confessed to police after a long interrogation that was recorded – but portions of it are missing. Mr. Hernandez suffers from mental illness and quickly recanted the confession.
Moreover, there was a previous confession by a guy named Jose Ramos. He may, in fact, be the more likely suspect – he is currently serving a prison sentence in Pennsylvania and is a serial pedophile.
Mr. Ramos confessed to police that he kidnapped a boy who he was “ninety per cent sure” was Etan. He denied killing him, however, claiming he put him on the subway. Moreover, he had an actual connection to the family – he was 18 years old at the time of the disappearance and he was boyfriend of a lady who had been hired to walk the children to school.
As Amy Davidson of the New Yorker would write, “The doubt in this case was not just reasonable. It was, and is, profound. There was no real physical evidence. Etan’s body was never found.”
She added, “Ramos is a frightening figure, who once tried to lure children into a drainpipe in Van Cortlandt Park, in the Bronx. He’d been living in the drainpipe, and police found pictures of boys Etan’s age among his possessions.”
On the other hand, Mr. Hernandez did not simply confess to police, but, as his first wife testified, “He continued to explain to me that something terrible had happened when he was in New York” and then he described killing the boy.
The jury would deliberate for 18 days, asking about the evidentiary status of confessions.
There were also problems with the confession. Pro Publica, for instance reports that “[h]e said he choked the boy in the bodega’s basement. He offered no motive. And some of his claims contradicted the few accepted facts surrounding the boy’s disappearance.”
They point out, “Hernandez was quickly arrested, and eventually indicted, despite prosecutors discovering no meaningful additional evidence against him.”
Pro Publica notes, “Federal officials privately expressed skepticism about the case. Some prosecutors within the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance also worried that Vance was making a mistake in pursuing a conviction. Several experts interviewed by ProPublica faulted the police interrogation – hours of it went unrecorded – and said Hernandez appeared to fit the profile of someone who might falsely confess.”
But this case ultimately came down to Adam Sirois. As he told the New York Post, “I knew that I would start from the presumption of innocence. I knew that because we are told we should start from that presumption.”
He freely admits there were times when he fully felt that Mr. Hernandez was guilty. He said about the confession: “They are quite hard to watch. If you only saw that, and you had nothing else to consider, yes it would be hard to find him not guilty.” However, “But we’re told we are not supposed to judge a person only on his own words.”
He also found it more chilling to hear the Jose Ramos interview. “For me, it was hard to get over that. For me, Ramos is a serious factor that needs to be considered.”
But what hung this for him was: “For me, the whole case kind of hinges on mental health, which factors into what I think are the false confessions — or at least the likelihood of false confessions being made by him [Hernandez].”
He said, “First of all, false confessions do exist . . . That’s one thing we had to consider. The second factor was both mental-health witnesses for the defense and the prosecution [described] a series of factors that would make someone vulnerable to say a false confession.”
He said that, while he is not a mental health expert, he has a public health background and was asked by the jury to explain the mental health issues to everyone.
Mr. Sirois said, “A lot of the things you have to believe for Pedro to be guilty just don’t add up.”
As the New York Times editorial this morning puts it, “False confessions are far more common than most people realize, and Mr. Sirois, who has a background in public health but not mental health, said he was asked to explain to the other jurors how someone could possibly confess to a crime he did not commit.”
The mental illness factor, the confession being the only evidence tying Mr. Hernandez to the crime, and the missing hours of the confession tape are enough for me to question why this case was being tried at this time.
It was a horrible crime, to be sure, but that crime is not rectified 36 years later by putting the wrong person in prison.
It seems like the defense presented expert testimony on false confessions, but even that does not seem to be enough to overcome the power of watching a man confess to a crime on video.
—David M. Greenwald reporting