The tearful confession came after six and a half hours of interrogation, and yet, when it was over, the man now on trial in the murder of 6-year-old Etan Patz had left key questions unanswered.
The accused man, Pedro Hernandez, 54, gave no reason for his sudden decision to strangle Etan. He volunteered that “it wasn’t sexual,” one of the detectives testified.
Later, as a video camera recorded his words, Mr. Hernandez insisted the boy was still alive when he encased him in a plastic garbage bag and a cardboard box, then abandoned him in an alleyway in Manhattan in 1979.
“I know I did what I did, but he was alive,” Mr. Hernandez insisted, weeping, in a half-hour statement the police videotaped at the end of the interrogation in 2012. “He wasn’t dead. Somebody must have did something, maybe put him in the garbage or killed him. I don’t know.”
On Monday in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, jurors in Mr. Hernandez’s murder trial were shown his first videotaped statement to the police. They watched intently as the three New York detectives sometimes prompted Mr. Hernandez, sometimes thanked him for being brave and other times consoled him. One detective, Jose Morales, repeatedly rubbed Mr. Hernandez’s back and head as he sniffed and sobbed in a cramped interview room.
The jury also watched a second video filmed a few hours later by the police with a cellphone. That recording shows Mr. Hernandez leading detectives to a spot at 115 Thompson Street in SoHo, where he maintains he left Etan.
The initial confession to the police — along with a three-hour confession Mr. Hernandez gave 12 hours later to a prosecutor — forms the heart of the state’s case against him. Etan’s body and belongings were never found, and there is no physical evidence.
Etan vanished as he headed to a school bus stop on the morning of May 25, 1979. At the time, Mr. Hernandez was working in a bodega near the bus stop.
Defense lawyers have argued the confessions are the fictional creations of a fragile mind. Mr. Hernandez has a low I.Q. and a history of mental illness, and defense lawyers say he made up the confession to satisfy the detectives, who may have inadvertently fed him details of the crime during hours of unrecorded questioning.
During cross-examination, the lead defense lawyer, Harvey Fishbein, asked questions that suggested the detectives had played on Mr. Hernandez’s religious beliefs and had pretended to befriend him, eventually persuading him to confess to a crime he did not commit. “We believe that what he’s saying is just not real,” Mr. Fishbein said outside court. “It’s fantasy.”
On the 55-minute tape introduced into evidence on Monday, Mr. Hernandez said he lured Etan into the basement of the bodega with the promise of a soda. There, he choked the child with his hands until the boy passed out.
Detective David Ramirez testified that Mr. Hernandez finally broke down in tears and confessed around 2:30 p.m. on May 23, 2012. He had been talking to detectives since 8:10 a.m., and had denied several times that he knew anything about Etan’s disappearance. The interview took place in the Camden County prosecutor’s office in New Jersey, near Mr. Hernandez’s home in Maple Shade.
The disappearance of Etan Patz, a 6-year-old boy, gripped New York City in 1979 and the years that followed.
A change came over Mr. Hernandez, Detective Ramirez said, after he was told detectives were also talking to his former wife and one of his childhood friends in other rooms. Both have testified that Mr. Hernandez had spoken to them in the early 1980s about having strangled a boy in New York City.
That information prompted Mr. Hernandez to admit to the murder, Detective Ramirez said. “He said: ‘I don’t know why I did it. It wasn’t sexual,’ ” Detective Ramirez recalled.
Still, the detective said the police did not read Mr. Hernandez his rights and did not turn on recording equipment until 2:53 p.m., after Mr. Hernandez had admitted killing Etan.
On Monday, before the video was played for the jury, a defense lawyer raised concerns about newly discovered evidence in the case. The lawyer, Alice L. Fontier, said three boxes of evidence that were discovered in a police storage room in Harlem last week contained more than 1,400 pages of documents about Jose A. Ramos, a convicted child molester who was a longtime suspect in Etan’s disappearance.
With the defense planning to present evidence that Mr. Ramos was responsible for Etan’s disappearance, the discovery of the boxes could jeopardize the fairness of the proceedings, Ms. Fontier said.
“Given this massive disclosure at this point, in the middle of the trial, there may be issues,” she said. “We may need to re-call some of their witnesses. We may need to move for a mistrial.”
Joan Illuzzi-Orbon, the lead prosecutor, said the boxes were found on Thursday when officers were cleaning out a storage room in a Harlem police station. Two of the boxes contained duplicates of police reports, missing-child posters, letters to the Patz family, records of people arrested in 1979 and a card catalog of witnesses.
But the third box contained records of the investigation into Mr. Ramos, including the debriefings of two federal informers who gathered evidence against him, Ms. Illuzzi-Orbon said. On Monday, she said prosecutors were still copying documents and turning them over to the defense.
“We are not sure how it might affect the trial,” Mr. Fishbein said. “We want to proceed.”
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