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Etan Patz case: New Jersey man pleads not guilty in 1979 death of NYC boy

Louis Lanzano / AP

In this Nov. 15, 2012 file photo, Pedro Hernandez appears in Manhattan criminal court in New York. Hernandez, who is charged with killing 6-year-old Etan Patz in 1979, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to murder, despite police saying he confessed to the crime.

The man charged with killing a 6-year-old New York City boy who was infamously abducted in 1979 pleaded not guilty Wednesday, even as his lawyer insisted his confession to police was false.

Pedro Hernandez, 51, wore a gray sweatsuit and answered "not guilty" at the hearing in the case of Etan Patz, whose disappearance helped spawn the movement to publicize cases of missing children. A grand jury had indicted him on two counts of second-degree murder and one count of first-degree kidnapping.

"My client had no motive and no history," defense attorney Harvey Fishbein said outside court after seeking dismissal of the case.

"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 that he is still under medical and psychiatric care.

"My client is not happy that he is in jail," Fishbein said.

Hernandez was previously found fit to stand trial. Fishbein said previously that while Hernandez's defense will revolve around his mental state, he isn't pursuing an insanity defense.

An insanity defense would mean acknowledging he committed the crime but arguing that he was too psychologically ill to know it was wrong. Hernandez will maintain he didn't kill Etan and argue he 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.

Stanley K. Patz

Etan Patz, who vanished in New York on May 25, 1979.

Psychiatric exams of the jailed Hernandez have found that he has an IQ in the borderline-to-mild mental retardation 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 speak to reporters.

Etan's disappearance led to an intensive search and garnered huge publicity. 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 on 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 dug up a basement in the neighborhood hoping for clues, putting the cold case back into the limelight once again.

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.

Following the arrest, court hearings for Hernandez were postponed for weeks, with both sides saying they were continuing to investigate.

Authorities seized a computer and a piece of old-looking children's clothing from Hernandez's home, scoured the basement of the building where he had worked in what was then a grocery store and interviewed his relatives and friends — but nothing incriminating came of it, according to a person familiar with the investigation. The person wasn't authorized to discuss findings not yet made public and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Under New York state law, a confession can be enough to convict someone as long as authorities can establish that a crime occurred.

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Etan's parents, Stan and Julie Patz, have been reluctant to move or even change their phone number in case their son tried to reach out.

Etan was declared legally dead by his father more than a decade ago so he could sue convicted child molester Jose Ramos in the boy's death. Ramos was found responsible — a ruling made because he didn't entirely cooperate with questioning during the lawsuit — and Fishbein could seek to make that a factor in Hernandez's defense.

Ramos, now 69, had been dating the boy's baby sitter in 1979 and was the prime suspect for years, but he was never charged. He repeatedly denies having anything to do with Etan's disappearance.

He was later convicted of molesting two different children. He completed a 27-year sentence last month but was immediately arrested upon his release from a Pennsylvania prison, because authorities said he had given them a false address for where he'd be living.

Ramos is currently jailed in Pennsylvania on charges of failing to properly register as a sex offender under Megan's Law after he was released earlier this year from prison. 

Associated Press writer Jennifer Peltz contributed to this report.

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