A man charged with killing a 6-year-old boy who infamously vanished in 1979 while walking to catch a school bus pleaded not guilty Wednesday as his lawyer insisted his confession to police was false.
Pedro Hernandez, 51, answered "not guilty" at the hearing in the case of Etan Patz, whose disappearance helped spawn the movement to publicize cases of missing children nationwide.
Defense attorney Harvey Fishbein said outside court his client "had no motive and no history."
"There is a serious question as to what happened in May 1979," Fishbein said. "There is no crime scene. There are no witnesses to a crime."
Fishbein also noted a body was never recovered. He said that Hernandez confessed falsely after seven hours of questioning by police and that he is still under medical and psychiatric care.
"My client is not happy that he is in jail," Fishbein said.
The defendant's wife and daughter attended the hearing but did not speak to reporters.
Hernandez was a teenage stock clerk at a convenience store close to the bus stop where Etan was headed when he went missing on his way to school on May 25, 1979.
The disappearance led to an intensive search and garnered huge publicity, and the spotlight on the case has ebbed and flowed over the past three decades. Etan's photo was among the first put on milk cartons, and his case turned May 25 into National Missing Children's Day.
Based on a tip, police this spring approached Hernandez, now a married father with no criminal record living in Maple Shade, N.J. The tip came after federal authorities and police dug up a basement in the neighborhood hoping for clues, putting the cold case back into the limelight.
Investigators say Hernandez told them he lured the boy into the convenience store with the promise of a soda. According to police, he said he led the child to the basement, choked him and left his body in a cardboard box in a bag of trash about a block away. According to a videotaped statement by Hernandez, when he left the box, Etan was alive, his lawyer said in court papers.
Fishbein said he would seek to dismiss the case because the only evidence is his client's false confession. Under state law, a confession can be enough to convict someone as long as authorities can establish a crime occurred and the confession is reliable.
If the case goes forward, Fishbein said, the defense will revolve around his client's mental state, though he isn't pursuing an insanity defense and Hernandez was found mentally fit to stand trial.
An insanity defense would mean acknowledging he committed the crime but arguing that he was too psychologically ill to know it was wrong. Hernandez didn't kill Etan and made a false confession because of his mental problems, among other factors, Fishbein said.
"The only part that mental disease plays in this case is its role in the confession," he said before the court date.
Psychiatric exams of Hernandez have found that he has an IQ in the borderline-to-mild mental retardation range, his lawyer has said. Hernandez also has been found to suffer from schizotypal personality disorder, which is characterized by hallucinations, according to his lawyer.
Etan's parents, Stan and Julie Patz, have been reluctant to move or even change their phone number in case their son tried to reach out. They have not commented.
Etan was declared legally dead by his father more than a decade ago so he could sue convicted child molester Jose Ramos in the boy's death. Ramos was found responsible, a ruling made because he didn't entirely cooperate with questioning during the lawsuit, and Fishbein could seek to make that a factor in Hernandez's defense.
Ramos, now 69, had been dating the boy's baby sitter in 1979 and was the prime suspect for years, but he was never charged. He repeatedly denied having anything to do with Etan's disappearance.
Ramos was later convicted of molesting two different children. He completed a 27-year sentence last month but was immediately arrested upon his release from a Pennsylvania prison because authorities said he had given them a false address for where he'd be living.
Fishbein said that Ramos was a more likely person to have committed the crime. A message left with his public defender in Pennsylvania was not immediately returned Wednesday.
Associated Press writer Jennifer Peltz contributed to this report.