Updated Wednesday, December 12, 2012 at 09:46 PM
NEW YORK — The man charged with killing a 6-year-old New York City boy who was infamously abducted in 1979 pleaded not guilty Wednesday, while his lawyer insisted his confession to police was false.
Pedro Hernandez, 51, answered “not guilty” at the hearing in the case of Etan Patz, whose disappearance helped spawn the movement to publicize cases of missing children.
“My client had no motive and no history,” defense attorney Harvey Fishbein said outside court.
“There is a serious question as to what happened in May 1979,” Fishbein said. “There is no crime scene. There are no witnesses to a crime.”
Fishbein also noted a body was never recovered.
He said Hernandez confessed falsely after seven hours of questioning by police, and he is still under medical and psychiatric care.
Fishbein said he would seek to dismiss the case because the only evidence is his client’s false confession. Under state law, a confession can be enough to convict someone as long as authorities can establish a crime occurred and the confession is reliable.
But if the case does go forward, Fishbein said the defense will focus on his client’s mental state, though he isn’t pursuing an insanity defense and Hernandez was found mentally fit to stand trial.
An insanity defense would mean acknowledging he committed the crime but arguing he was too psychologically ill to know it was wrong. Hernandez didn’t kill Etan and made a false confession because of his mental problems, among other factors, Fishbein said.
“The only part that mental disease plays in this case is its role in the confession,” he said before the court date.
Psychiatric exams of the jailed Hernandez have found that he has an IQ in the borderline-to-mild mentally disabled range, his lawyer has said. Hernandez also has been found to suffer from schizotypal personality disorder, which is characterized by hallucinations, according to his lawyer.
The defendant’s wife and daughter attended the hearing but did not comment.
Etan’s disappearance led to an intensive search. His photo was among the first put on milk cartons, and his case turned May 25 into National Missing Children’s Day.
Hernandez was a teenage stock clerk at a convenience store when Etan disappeared on his way to school May 25, 1979. Hernandez was a married father with no criminal record and living in Maple Shade, N.J., when police approached him based on a tip this year. The tip came after federal authorities and police dug up a basement in the neighborhood hoping for clues, putting the cold case back into the limelight.
Investigators say Hernandez told them he lured the boy into the convenience store with the promise of a soda. According to police, he said he led the child to the basement, choked him and left his body in a bag of trash about a block away.
Etan’s parents, Stan and Julie Patz, have not commented.