At a hearing in State Supreme Court in Manhattan on Wednesday, prosecutors and defense lawyers huddled around Judge Maxwell Wiley’s bench. There was much murmuring and some clear signs of exasperation: eyes rolled and heads shook. Finally, a deal was struck.
Its particulars shocked few in the courtroom: there would be more delays in the prosecution of Pedro Hernandez for the 1979 murder of Etan Patz.
The hearing that will decide whether Hernandez’s alleged confession in the infamous missing child case is admissible was pushed back once more, this time from March to June, more than two years from Hernandez’s initial arrest. And a trial, should one occur, will not take place before this coming September.
No one expected the case against Hernandez to be quick or easy. Patz had gone missing more than 30 years ago, and his body has never been found. Hernandez’s confession, which he has now recanted, is the lone publicly known piece of evidence against the former Manhattan bodega clerk who was working near the Patz family apartment on the morning of May 25, 1979. Hernandez’s lawyer has said his client is mentally ill, and potentially complex psychiatric evidence will be presented at any trial.
Still, the slow pace of the proceedings stands out, even among other complicated, high-profile murder cases. The prosecution, for instance, has yet to formally submit the findings of its own psychiatric experts.
In April of 1989, five teenage boys were arrested for the brutal rape and assault of a 28-year-old woman in Central Park, an event that would become widely known as the Central Park jogger case. There were allegations that those charged had been tricked or coerced into confessing, but even in that case, the confessions were evaluated by a court in less than a year. The first trial took place in August 1990.
John Hinckley Jr., who presented an insanity defense at his 1982 trial for the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, was tried just a year after his arrest.
And Andrew Goldstein, a schizophrenic man who pushed a young woman into an oncoming subway train in Manhattan in 1999, was tried mere months later.
In court papers, Hernandez’s lawyer has complained about the delays – in everything from having potentially exculpatory evidence turned over to him by prosecutors to having his client examined by the prosecution’s experts. He asserts that prosecutors have “moved at a glacial speed” on their obligations to turn over investigative reports, witness statements, and other material that might come out at trial.
Prosecutors with the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance have blamed the FBI for some of the delays in turning over material to Hernandez’s lawyer. They have also asserted that Hernandez’s lawyer, Harvey Fishbein, has himself been responsible for the length of the proceedings.
In court papers filed last December, prosecutors said the 18 months Hernandez had then spent in custody was “nowhere near unreasonable, uncommon or unfair.”
A spokesman for Vance’s office would not comment when asked about the most recent rescheduling.
When prosecutors first won a murder indictment against Hernandez in the fall of 2012 – one that claimed he had lured the boy into the local bodega and then strangled him – prosecutors evinced considerable confidence in their case.
“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 a spokesperson for the office in November 2012. “The grand jury has found sufficient evidence to charge the defendant, and this is a case that we believe should be presented to a jury at trial.”
Fifteen months later, there has yet to be a hearing into the admissibility of Hernandez’s confession. Fishbein is set to argue that Hernandez, in part because of his mental illness and in part because of the length of his initial, unrecorded interrogation, was incapable of understanding his rights while being questioned.
That hearing was first scheduled to take place last month, only to be moved to March 17. Now, it will not take place until June.