Former bodega worker Pedro Hernandez appeared in Manhattan Supreme Court Thursday morning, his first appearance after his indictment Wednesday in the abduction and murder of Etan Patz.
He did not enter a plea, though his attorney later called his client's indictment "curious," adding it was the product of a "false confession."
"We didn't get an opportunity to enter a plea," Manhattan attorney Harvey Fishbein said outside court. "Just so there's no question, the plea in this case will be not guilty."
Wearing a gray T-shirt and without the goatee he previously sported, Hernandez, cuffed, hands behind his back, was ordered back to court on Dec. 12. His wife and daughter were present in court. Afterward, their attorney, Robert Gottleib, said they are "shocked" with the decision to prosecute.
Hernandez was indicted Wednesday in the abduction and murder of Etan, the 6-year-old boy whose disappearance on his way to school in 1979 has haunted investigators for three decades. His indictment came six months after Hernandez, a husband and father from Maple Grove, N.J., confessed to snatching and killing the boy.
But police have struggled to find corroborating evidence, and Hernandez's family has attributed the confession to a history of mental disorders.
"He has a long-standing problem with hallucinations and delusions," Gottleib, the attorney for Hernandez's wife and daughter said after the court appearance, adding: "They have lived with this, they know it, and they are shocked, frankly, that this case is going forward. They expected the case to end before this date."
Meanwhile, Fishbein said the statements previously made by Hernandez are not reliable -- and said they are the product of three factors: that his client suffers from a mental disorder that has led to those hallucinations and delusions; that he has a low IQ; and, the third factor being law enforcement tactics.
Fishbein said the fitness of his client to stand trial will not be challenged, that there is no issue with his competency to stand trial. But, he said: "This trial will take time and money and it will not tell the city, will not tell the Patz family, what happened to Etan Patz."
Experts say the extenuating factors -- the mental disorders, the lack of corroborating evidence -- will make a trial challenging. Hernandez could not enter any plea Thursday during his appearance before Judge Anthony Pereira because Pereira is a criminal court judge -- and lost jurisdiction with the indictment.
District Attorney Cyrus Vance, under pressure to return an indictment ever since NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly fingered Hernandez as the culprit at a May news conference, said the kidnapping and second-degree murder charges were born of "months of factual investigation and legal analysis."
"We believe the evidence that Mr. Hernandez killed Etan Patz to be credible and persuasive, and that his statements are not the product of any mental illness," said Vance spokeswoman Erin Duggan. "This is a case that we believe should be presented to a jury at trial."
Hernandez, 51, worked at a bodega in the SoHo neighborhood where Etan disappeared on May 25, 1979. The NYPD for years focused on other suspects, but during a surge in publicity about the case this spring associates tipped police that Hernandez had admitted involvement to both relatives and confidantes over the years.
Questioned by investigators, he allegedly said that he lured the boy into a basement by offering him a soda, killed him and threw the body away in the garbage. No body has ever been found. Police have not said that Hernandez gave any motive for the purported killing, and there is no known evidence of him assaulting other children.
Kelly, in his May news conference, told reporters that he thought the confession was both powerful and credible on its own. "He was remorseful, and I think the detectives thought it was a feeling of relief on his part," Kelly said.
With John Valenti and Maria Alvarez ___
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