Crime Scene

In Patz Investigation, a Confession Is Not the Final Word

Investigators on Friday at the site where Pedro Hernandez told them he had strangled Etan Patz  in 1979. Now detectives must try to prove he did what he said he did.                                            Robert Stolarik for The New York Times




By MICHAEL WILSON Published: May 25, 2012  

The man breaks down and cries and says yes, I did it. I killed that 6-year-old boy 33 years ago. I did it.

It should be a detective’s dream come true. The police have their man, their investigation sewn up with a tidy bow of his own damning words.

Far from it, for now the police must try to prove that he did what he said he did. And in the case of the suspect, Pedro Hernandez, and the boy, Etan Patz, that is not going to be easy. In many ways, this confession is a worst-case scenario of corroboration, starting with the body.

The police said Mr. Hernandez confessed to strangling Etan in the basement of the SoHo bodega where he worked in 1979 and dumping the body in a bag with the garbage on the street. Had he buried it in a lot someplace, the police could dig, but Mr. Hernandez’s version of events renders the haystack too big, the needle almost certainly gone for good. The prosecution of Mr. Hernandez ground forward on Friday, with his arraignment on second-degree murder charges. At the same time, officers tried to return to the past, stepping down into the basement of what is now a boutique eyeglasses shop to document its current appearance, not even pretending to believe there are any clues to be found.

The modern training that detectives receive goes out the window here: video from street cameras; incriminating e-mails; MetroCard swipe data; cellphone logs.

“Time is an enemy here,” said Vernon J. Geberth, a retired New York City police lieutenant commander in the Bronx. He said he was struck by the absence of corroborating details in the news accounts of Mr. Hernandez’s confession. “I have to ask myself a question, do they have something they’re not telling us?” he said.

So how do you corroborate Mr. Hernandez’s story? A New York detective and an assistant district attorney, both veterans and both speaking on the condition of anonymity because they are not involved in the Patz case, spoke of ways to tackle such a difficult case.

Usually, there is a scene, usually there is a body,” the prosecutor said. “If you don’t have physical evidence that points to your guy, you go into your guy’s background. How did his mother treat him? Why this? Did his brother die? So, he wanted revenge? You look for family members, you look for relatives, you look for teachers. Why would he do such a thing?”

“You want to make sure he’s not a chronic confessor,” the detective said. Many books are about those who confessed to crimes they did not commit.

Detectives have most likely returned to Mr. Hernandez’s story.

“You always go back for more detail, more detail, more detail,” Mr. Geberth said. “The confession is usually devoid of a lot of facts. They just want to get it out. Once it’s out, the barrier has been crossed.” The need to confess behind him, the suspect may relax. “Get him something to eat, something to drink. ‘By the way, did you speak to anybody? Did you go to work the next day, or take the day off?’ Important things.”

The police know who worked at the bodega in 1979 because several employees were interviewed when Etan disappeared. Did Mr. Hernandez say or do anything strange at that time? Mr. Hernandez’s family said he spoke of having done “a bad thing and killed a child in New York,” Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said Thursday night.

The detective I spoke with said he would return to those people, and find others. “What he said to them, when he said it, what details he gave. What was his demeanor? Has he ever admitted to doing anything else?” He would try to find other people with whom Mr. Hernandez spoke about the boy. “Interview people who haven’t come forward.”

The detective said he would have revisited the scene with the suspect as it was in 1979, in a room with photographs from that time. “I would take the photographs and say, ‘Point to where you met him. Point to where he was,’ ” the detective said. “I’d have him put an ‘X’ on it with a Magic Marker and sign it.”

Why? “Great evidence in court,” he said. “When you go to court, you not only have his statement saying that’s what happened, but you have evidence for jurors to see.”

Jurors. That there are 12 people walking around who may one day sit in judgment of Mr. Hernandez is what has the police hunting for proof and for the holy grail — motive, the prosecutor said. “Corroboration is such a legal thing, it’s a thin requirement,” he said. “The question is, do you get the jury to believe this is the real thing?”

Jurors, he said, “care about why.”