NEW YORK — A man charged with murder decades after one of the nation’s most infamous child disappearances can go to trial, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Maxwell Wiley issued the ruling that Pedro Hernandez of Maple Shade, N.J., can be tried in the case surrounding 6-year-old Etan Patz, last seen walking to his Manhattan school bus stop in 1979.
Authorities say they have finally found the culprit in Hernandez, who confessed after his arrest last year and had made incriminating remarks years before.
As the ruling was delivered, Hernandez sat still and didn’t seem to react. His wife and daughter were in the courtroom with a friend, and were seen tearfully hugging in the hallway afterward.
Outside court, defense lawyer Harvey Fishbein noted that there is a fairly high legal bar for dismissing cases.
“We’re prepared to move forward to trial and show the people of New York that Pedro Hernandez had nothing to do with whatever happened to Etan Patz in 1979,” Fishbein said.
Prosecutors had no immediate comment.
Hernandez is due back in court July 31.
Fishbein had said that Hernandez is schizophrenic and bipolar, and that his admission was false, peppered with questionable claims and made after almost seven hours of police questioning.
“No evidence or witnesses have been found corroborating any of the few facts” in Hernandez’s confession, Fishbein wrote last month in papers arguing that the case should be dismissed.
The Manhattan district attorney’s office has previously said there’s enough proof to sustain the case, Hernandez willingly talked with investigators and prosecutors don’t believe his confession is a mentally ill man’s imaginings. Under New York law, a person can be convicted based only on a confession, if there’s additional evidence that a crime was committed.
“The evidence before the grand jury (that indicted Hernandez) amply supports the offenses charged,” prosecutors wrote in a filing this winter.
Etan vanished on May 25, 1979; the anniversary later was named National Missing Children’s Day in his memory. He became one of the first vanished children pictured on a milk carton.
Hernandez, 52, was arrested last May after police got a tip that he’d told people years before that he had killed a child in New York City.
Hernandez then told authorities he’d seen Etan at the bus stop, offered the boy a soda to entice him to a corner store where Hernandez worked and choked the boy in the basement. Hernandez said he tossed Etan’s book bag behind a basement freezer, put his limp body in a box and left it with some trash about a block away.