Juries, Confessions, and Re-trials: The Etan Patz, Adam Sirois, & Pedro Hernandez Story

Chapter 1: The Disappearance

What is the harm in walking alone to the bus stop? It’s only two blocks. Stan and Julie Patz let 6-year-old Etan Patz walk to the bus stop in SoHo alone for the first time ever on May 25, 1979. They lived in a loft on Spring Street, in a trendy, artsy neighborhood. They were young, well-dressed, busy New York City parents. Julie ran a day-care center in their apartment, and often had children she needed to look after. Stan, a photographer, would take photos of Etan for his portfolio.

On the day he disappeared, Etan begged his mother to let him go to school on his own. “It’s fine, Mom. I can do it,” Julie said Etan was small for his age. However, he was happy and always smiling. America would become very familiar with the boy’s smiling face over the years.

When Etan did not return in the afternoon, Julie called the mother of one of Etan’s friends and discovered he had never gotten on the school bus. “My legs started giving out,” Julie later said.

Right after his disappearance, pictures of the smiling blonde boy stared out from the inside pages of newspapers. Not enough was known yet to make it a front page story. Day after day, Etan’s parents hoped they would find him. Neighbors searched, police searched, everyone searched. Newspapers printed the parents’ contact information on Spring Street, so that they could receive tips. None turned out to be helpful. The boy had just vanished.

After a while, papers stopped printing the story. Julie said that her younger son, Ari, asked her when the family could smile again. The parents kept up efforts to find him.

In 1984, five years after he disappeared, Etan became the first missing child to appear on the side of a milk carton — a campaign run by the National Child Safety Council to help find missing children. President Reagan declared the date of Etan’s disappearance, “National Missing Children’s Day.” Still, no one found Etan.

Over the years, Etan’s parents were suspicious of a man named Jose Ramos, but they had no proof that he abducted Etan. Sometimes Etan’s babysitter had walked him to the bus with Ramos.

For years after Etan’s disappearance, Ramos was in and out of prison. In 1985, he was convicted of child molestation in Dallas, Pennsylvania. He spent 27 years behind bars — and then, after his release in 2012, was arrested again when he failed to disclose his current address, a requirement for convicted sex offenders. In 1991, a jailhouse snitch reported that Ramos had confessed that he had been in the Patz apartment, that he had killed Etan, and he was curious about the statute of limitations on kidnapping and murder.

In 2004, the Patz family sued Jose Ramos for wrongful death, believing he had killed their son. It didn’t matter that Ramos was in prison. The Patz family did not think that Ramos could pay his debt, rather they were focused on recognition for their suffering. In 2012, the family won a judgment of $2 million.

And then, in 2012, they learned that a different suspect had confessed, and asked the court to vacate the judgment against Ramos. The Patz family turned their attention to this new suspect.

Did the Patz family feel guilty for years of fingerpointing? What convinced them that this new confession was valid?

Chapter 2: The Confession

In 1979, one Pedro Hernandez attended a prayer group in Southern New Jersey with his brother-in-law, Tomas Rivera. Overcome with guilt, he told the group in Spanish that he had strangled a young boy. People grappled with reporting Hernandez, but did not. Hernandez came to one more religious group meeting after that confession, playing the accordion for the group. After that, he became a memory for everyone — until the year 2012.

In 2012, police again searched the area where Etan supposedly disappeared. They searched for five days, and turned up nothing. However, the search prompted Rivera to call the New York Police Department and report Hernandez.

Pedro Hernandez was now 51 years old. He was small physically, and was bald. He had an IQ of 67, and frequently appeared agitated and confused. It would later come out that he often had visions of angelic women in white and demons.

After Etan’s disappearance, Hernandez had quit his job at the bodega. At the time of the disappearance, Hernandez was 18 years old and had dropped out of high school. Shortly after he quit working at the bodega, he took a job at a dress factory in New Jersey. He had no criminal record. He had married, divorced and remarried in the intervening years.

After eight hours of questioning, he confessed that he had lured Etan into the bodega where he worked and strangled him in the basement.

During the interrogation, police ignored the video camera in the room. They turned it on only after hours of questioning, after missing the moment when Hernandez finally admitted his guilt. A year later, in 2013, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly ordered police to record confessions from the very start to the very finish. The rule did not yet exist when police questioned Hernandez.

But then the detectives turned on the camera, questioned him again, and produced a second confession. It took more questioning and more denials from Hernandez before he would again say what the police wanted to hear. The recording shows him dressed in an orange jump suit, seated on a bench, with his eyes downcast. He spoke with a heavy Hispanic accent. He appeared to be stressed and exhausted by the same, repeated questions.

“In the recording, a psychiatrist, who is off camera demands, “And Etan Patz, was he ever around the store at another time?”

Hernandez: “I’ve never seen that kid in my life.”

Pyschiatrist: “You were working at the store for how long before this happened?”

Hernandez: “Before what happened?”

Psychiatrist: “Before this incident that brought us here today.”

Hernandez: “I think I was working there for a year or something like that, a year, two years.”

Pyschiatrist: “Etan Patz never came into the store?”

Hernandez: “I never seen him.”

Psychiatrist: “You never saw him? You never saw him in the store or you never saw him here?”

The question is strange; it is unclear what the psychiatrist meant by the word “here.”

Hernandez: “I’ve never seen him in the store.”

Psychiatrist: “You had never seen him before?”

Hernandez: “I had never seen him before.”

The detectives asked the questions over and over and over and over and over and over and over.

Psychiatrist: “When you did see him, how long was he standing there, before you approached him?”

Hernandez: “Five minutes.”

Expressionless, Hernandez has no reaction to the change in his answer from never seeing Etan in his life to seeing him in the store.

Hernandez then recounts how he put soda bottles in the storeroom and then came back out to see Patz.

Psychiatrist: “And were you watching him, what did you do when you came back out?”

“Then I approached him and I asked him if he wanted something to drink,” Hernandez replied. “He didn’t answer me, he nodded his head. I went down to the basement, he followed me to the basement. And whatever happened there, I choke him. It was something that just happened, like quick. I don’t know why I did it.”

And then the detective asked Hernandez if he was surprised by his own action.

“I don’t even know if it happened,” Hernandez replied.

Jane Rosenberg is a court artist. In 2014, when Hernandez went on trial, she covered it, “I remember the guy Hernandez was always stone-faced. He never once showed any emotion.”

One of the sketches she drew shows Hernandez just as she described, stone faced, sitting at the defense table in court. Even during the confession tape, Hernandez appeared emotionless — even when demonstrating that he strangled Patz with his bare hands.

It is a known phenomenon that people may make false confessions — especially if they are mentally ill. According to The Innocence Project website, “Astonishingly, more than 1 out of 4 people wrongfully convicted but later exonerated by DNA evidence made a false confession or incriminating statement.”

In the case of Hernandez, there is no DNA evidence and no body — no physical evidence that could confirm or contradict the confession.

The Innocence Project continues, “The reasons that people falsely confess are complex and varied, but what they tend to have in common is a belief that complying with the police by saying that they committed the crime in question will be more beneficial than continuing to maintain their innocence.”

After the arrest, police and prosecutors had to strategize about how to try a suspect without a body or physical evidence. The police reported that the specificity of the confession, as well as the fact that Hernandez had confessed to others in the past, made it believable. After Hernandez’s confession, police searched the area where the bodega once stood. However, they did not turn up any evidence. Although Hernandez is listed in a 1979 police report as one of the bodega workers, it turns out that detectives never questioned Hernandez after Etan’s disappearance.

Chapter 3: The First Trial

Attorneys in a criminal trial put together questions to ask prospective jurors, aimed at eliminating anyone with potential bias. The questions for the Hernandez trials included:

How long have you lived in Manhattan? In what other neighborhoods have you lived? How long have you lived in your current neighborhood? If you ever lived outside of Manhattan, where did you live?
Are you married? Divorced? Widowed? Do you live with your parents?
What is the highest level of education you have completed? Have you ever been fired from a job?
What does your spouse do for work? If you are a member of a religious organization, how often do you attend? Describe hobbies, interests, spare time activities.
Do you read the newspaper regularly? What are your three favorite news programs? How often do you watch TV? What Internet news media do you read or watch? Do you like to read books? Do you have a social media account? Do you write and speak other languages (besides English)?
Have you or a family member or close friend ever worked for law enforcement? Have you or a family member ever been arrested or charged with a crime? Have you, or a close friend or family member ever seen a mental health professional? This case has been widely publicized over the last 35 years. Have you seen, read, or heard about this case in newspapers, the internet, on television, on radio, or in magazine? Will the high publicity nature of this case and attention it may draw affect your ability to be able to be a fair and impartial juror?

Adam Sirois was one of the people who made it through those questions and became a juror. Several years later, sits at a table at a pub near Wall Street. He works as a fundraiser for Hadassah, an American Jewish women’s organization that raises money for Hadassah Hospital in Israel, and his office is nearby.

“I’ve lived overseas for ten years, I’ve been a public health consultant,” the New Jersey native says. Sirois has kind eyes and is well dressed, in a suit. He has come over on his lunch break in the pouring rain. He is thoughtful, passionate and quick to share his opinion.

He immediately starts talking quickly. He says he made an Excel spreadsheet of everyone he met at the Hernandez trial, with details about their backgrounds. He also took notes diligently throughout the trial, and he says that the other jurors even used them during deliberations because they were so organized. He seems proud of his ability to accurately document an event like a three-month trial. But he was upset when he found out that court personnel needed to take the notes at the end of the trial. “I thought we would be able to keep them,” he says. “If I had known, I would have gone home every night and wrote down what happened.

Then, Sirois starts at the beginning. The first day was pure chaos. Court administrators told the jury pool about the trial. He says, “It was interesting we were all called down and they explained the case. They were like it was three months at least. Immediately people were like, there was no way I can do it, I can’t get out of this, they made it easy for people to get out of it — half the pool disappeared.”

Sirois explains that he was doing consulting work with a company in Costa Rica at that time — which was fairly flexible work, so he was willing to stay on.

Still, he says he was shocked when court administrators called his name to be on the jury. “I really went into the case not knowing anything. I was really one of the few people who I think really knew nothing. I grew up in New Jersey. They didn’t really pay attention to that kind of stuff. I was six when Etan disappeared, because I’m the same age as him. I remember people said parents were freaking out, but I didn’t grow up with that fear or discussion of the case.”

Sirois says later, he was overseas when the case would have come up again. When he came back and lived in New York City, it still wasn’t on his radar: “I don’t pay attention to that kind of news. I think I had heard of the Etan Patz case, but I didn’t even know how to pronounce the name.”

Sirois says it wasn’t until halfway through the case that he began to notice Mr. Patz sitting in the courtroom, watching the jury every day. He said the jurors would say, “Have you seen Mr. Patz there today?” Everyone took note of the skinny elderly man with piercing eyes sitting on one of the benches in the courtroom directly behind the prosecution table.

Sirois tells me that even though he has no legal background, his job calls for him to know some laws. He says he works with, “a lot of lawyers, legal issue local tax laws, HR issues local to the country. I’m not a Crime Scene Investigation freak. Some people mentioned that in deliberations. I was like, oh this is not a TV show.”

He talks about Jose Ramos — the other suspect in the Patz disappearance.

Sirois says the jury didn’t see Ramos testify, that the defense team wanted it to, but the prosecution won that argument. “The judge was awful, so pro-prosecution,” says Sirois. Sirois noted that Ramos just seemed so much more “like a pedophile.”

Sirois says that Hernandez is kind of odd-looking, but because he was mentally ill, it was hard not to feel sorry for him. “They could have dressed him better,” says Sirois. His clothes “were always too big and always in these awful colors, not exactly white, blue or yellow. If they made him look a little more human, it would have helped him — because he is human.”

The trial dragged on for three months, from January until May. At first, Sirois says that the jurors were cordial to each other. He said they believed they would hang out after the long trial finally ended. He thought the experience of being through such a long ordeal would bond them for life. Sirois said he didn’t really make any decisions about Hernandez’s guilt in the trial right off the bat. He waited to hear the testimony — to see the evidence. He understood that this was a person’s life on the line, that this wasn’t Law and Order, the television show.

Chapter 5: The Turning Point

Sirois says that New York University had contacted him and wanted to facilitate a discussion with him and other jurors so that people could learn more about the deliberation process. The other jurors refused. “I would have liked to have an open conversation with them,” Sirois said.

The restaurant is dark and noisy. “For right now, the hardest part of the trial was probably the testimony of Assistant District Attorney Durastante — I can’t believe I remember his name,” says Sirois — referring to Gianmatteo Durastante.

“That’s the day I realized there is something really fishy here. He was the one who basically testified as to why the police didn’t video record,” explaining that it was was “disruptive of the process,” recalls Sirois.

He continues, “I was sitting there like Oh..My..God…I cannot believe that this is the reason. That it’s disruptive of the process? It’s not like a light would have gone on saying NOW RECORDING, it was a secret camera behind a fire thing. It’s baffling! It makes absolutely no sense.”

Sirois tells me it would have helped the jury tremendously to see the exact moment when Hernandez confessed. What caused it? What was the mood like? What did the police ask? How long did it take him to confess?

It was so hard to tell these things without video. So hard to be certain “beyond reasonable doubt.”

Citations

Trial transcripts, trial 1, 2012, “Stan and Julie Patz let 6-year-old Etan Patz walk to the bus stop”

The New York Times, May 27th, 1979, “When Etan did not return in the afternoon, Julie called the mother of one of Etan’s friends and discovered he had never gotten on the school bus.”

The New York Times, May 28th, 1979, “Right after his disappearance, pictures of the smiling blonde boy stared out from the inside pages of newspapers.”

The New York Times, May 29th, 2979, “Not enough was known yet to make it a front page story.”

The New York Times, May 20th, 1979, “Julie called the mother of one of Etan’s friends and discovered he had never gotten on the school bus.”

The New York Times, May 21st, 1979, “Newspapers printed the parents’ contact information on Spring Street, so that they could receive tips. None turned out to be helpful. The boy had just vanished.”

Trial transcripts, trial 1, 2012, “Stan and Julie Patz let 6-year-old Etan Patz walk to the bus stop“ Julie said that her younger son, Ari, asked her when the family could smile again. The parents kept up efforts to find him.”

Interview, Adam Sirois, March 28th, 2017 “During the interrogation, police ignored the video camera in the room.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2DmysyADXXc Hernandez: “I never seen him.”

Photo by Jane Rosenberg published in Reuters, “Church group members recall accused man confessed in 1979 New York Murder” http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-crime-patz-idUSKBN0LA2FE20150206 (Photo)

Interview With Jane Rosenberg, Sketch Artist, March 4th, 2017, “‘I remember the guy Hernandez was always stone-faced. He never once showed any emotion.’”

Innocence Project, https://www.innocenceproject.org/about/“Astonishingly, more than 1 out of 4 people wrongfully convicted but later exonerated by DNA evidence made a false confession or incriminating statement.”

http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2016/08/01/etan-patz-wrongful-death/ “Wrongful Death Verdict Dropped for Onetime Suspect in Etan Patz Case,” August 1, 2016

Jury Instructions, Trial 1- “Attorneys in a criminal trial put together questions to ask prospective jurors, aimed at eliminating anyone with potential bias.”

Interview, Adam Sirois, March 28th, 2017 “Attorneys in a criminal trial put together questions to ask prospective jurors, aimed at eliminating anyone with potential bias.”

Interview, Adam Sirois, March 28th, 2017 “I was sitting there like Oh..My..God…I cannot believe that this is the reason. That it’s disruptive of the process? Interview, Adam Sirois, March 28th, 2017

Interview, Adam Sirois, March 28th, 2017 “That’s the day I realized there is something really fishy here. He was the one who basically testified as to why the police didn’t video record,” explaining that it was was “disruptive of the process,” recalls Sirois.

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