After an in-depth investigation, ProPublica.org — in co-production with WNYC— published a story today in which it reveals that the New York City police failed to record the interrogation of Pedro Hernandez, the man who, according to investigators, claims to have killed Etan Patz. The story gives a detailed account of how this single misstep could present challenges for the upcoming trial for this notorious missing-person case.
The case of Etan Patz, the six-year-old boy who disappeared from his New York City neighborhood as he walked — for the first time on his own — to catch his school bus, eluded investigators for more than 34 years given the lack of eyewitnesses and physical evidence. In late May 2012, however, investigators had a break in the case when they learned that Hernandez confessed to family and friends that as a stock boy at a SoHo bodega in 1979, he killed a child. Upon receiving the tip, New York investigators interrogated Hernandez at the Camden County Prosecutor’s office in New Jersey, where he confessed to choking the young boy, putting him in a plastic bag while he was still breathing, and then discarding of his body in a cardboard box on the street. Investigators claim that the confession provided enough evidence to indict Hernandez, but his attorney and other legal experts argue that the detectives made a critical mistake that could prevent the confession from being admissible in court: they neglected to record the seven-hour interrogation that preceded Hernandez’s confession.
ProPublica reports that both of the people overseeing the Patz investigation — Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance and New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly — have cited the mandatory taping of interrogations as “perhaps the single most important tool in preventing wrongful convictions.” In addition, the publication reports that the New Jersey office at which Hernandez was questioned is fully equipped to record interrogations, and that at that particular office, it is, in fact, mandatory that all questioning of suspects be recorded. According to the story, “ProPublica submitted detailed questions to Kelly and Vance seeking to understand why Hernandez’s interrogation was not taped. Neither man would answer any of them.”
Harvey Fishbein, Hernandez’s lawyer, told ProPublica that “the untaped interrogation of Hernandez violated New Jersey law.” In addition, he says that his client’s statements amount to a false confession because Hernandez, he claims, has a long history of mental illness.
Despite Fishbein’s arguments, Hernandez was indicted in Patz’s death on November 14, 2013. According to the New York Times, he was charged with second-degree murder and first-degree kidnapping.
Prosecutors told ProPublica that, while they “have conceded [that] Hernandez has long been on anti-psychotic drugs, they have dismissed the notion that he has a serious mental health problem that would have any bearing on the reliability of his confession. ‘There is no record of him ever being treated by any mental health professional for a major mental illness,’ prosecutors state in court filings.” Also, they said that, “because the Patz case was a New York matter, they did not have to honor New Jersey law and tape the interrogation.”
According to ProPublica, others have voiced doubts of Hernandez’s guilt in relation to Patz’s disappearance. FBI investigators who worked the case have reported inconsistencies with Hernandez’s confession and details that they know to be true about the investigation. And corroborating witnesses say that while Hernandez did tell stories about allegedly hurting a child in the past, the details of those accounts do not correlate with the confession he made to police about murdering Patz.
A trial date has been set for April 23, 2014. But before that, a March hearing is set at which prosecutors and the defense will each make their arguments as to whether or not the confession was voluntary and should be admissible in court.