Judge’s Decision in Etan Patz Case Highlights the Significance of False Confessions

A recent decision in New York has highlighted the role of false confessions in a case outcome. New York judge, Maxwell Wiley, has ruled a confession admissible despite the defendant’s low IQ and the lengthy duration of the interrogation process.

The Confession
Pedro Hernandez, who was 19 at the time, was accused of luring and killing 6-year old Etan Patz in a New York City case that occurred 33 years ago. Patz was on his way to school bus stop when he was allegedly lured into the basement of a convenience store and choked to death; his body disposed of in the trash. Although Patz’ body was never found, Hernandez confessed to the murder when he was brought in for questioning back in May 2012.

Over 2 days, Hernandez was subjected to a 7 ½ hour police interrogation, a 20-minute video statement after the interrogation and another statement at the district attorney’s office the following morning. According to a CNN report, Hernandez claimed he “did a bad thing and killed a boy in New York”. It is not clear whether Hernandez was ever interviewed in the initial case. Hernandez had no prior criminal record and his residential neighbors spoke highly of his character to authorities.

The Judge’s Decision
Hernandez’s attorney argued that Hernandez’s low IQ- which ranges borderline-mild retardation- combined with his diagnosis of schizophrenia, makes Hernandez’s confession unreliable and therefore inadmissible.

Wiley cited two experts who had both met with Hernandez and testified to his competence. He stated that Hernandez’s ability to acknowledge and waiver his Miranda rights is indicative of his overall understanding of the case. Therefore, Hernandez’s diagnosis of schizophrenia and low IQ are not enough to dismiss the confession. This means that the confession will be presented during trial and the jury will have to decide for themselves whether Hernandez’s statements are reliable or not, given the circumstances.

The Significance for Defense Attorneys
Once police obtain an admission of guilt, it significantly increases the chances of the prosecution securing a conviction at trial. They are a powerful type of evidence at trial and are often enough to persuade the jury to convict, which is why a motion to suppress a confession should be made when necessary.

It is important for all criminal defense attorneys to understand false confessions, as they are not limited to homicide cases. According to the Innocence Project, 30% of all DNA exonerations involve cases with false confessions from a defendant.

Lengthy interrogations, sleep deprivation and denial of medical attention and water are all techniques in which police officers may attempt to obtain a confession while holding a defendant in custody.

It is difficult to understand why anyone would confess to something he or she is not responsible for, so defense attorneys can educate the jury about the possibility to decrease the persuading value of a false or misleading statement.

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