Etan Patz - The Face on the Milk Carton

Etan Patz – The Face on the Milk Carton: Legal Commentary


When Etan Patz’s face appeared in the news again, we at Wild About Trial all recognized him right away. Some younger staffers did not recall the tumult and anxiety the case of the missing boy caused in 1979, but we all grew up looking at his face on the milk carton.

In these very old cases, it is so rare that a suspect is found without the assistance of DNA evidence. Usually in a cold case, new technology makes it possible to analyze a piece of evidence discovered at the time, and that can lead to reopening the investigation. But with Etan Patz’s case, that little piece of forensic evidence – the stray hair, say, or the smudged fingerprint – was never there. The police weren’t even sure the child had, in fact, been killed.

This case so far has only one component to it – the confession of a man who is reportedly mentally ill. Being mentally ill does not automatically make the confession invalid or untrue or inadmissible in court, but it will make the prosecution’s job a little bit harder. For example, it could be that someone suffering from grandiose delusions would confess to an old, high-profile case simply for the fifteen minutes of fame it would bring.

False confessions abound in high-profile cases. Recall the murder of another young child not too long ago, JonBenét Ramsey. In that case, John Mark Karr confessed to killing the six-year-old beauty pageant queen ten years after the girl was found dead. Upon further investigation, though, police found that Karr could not have murdered the child.

Probably one of the most famous missing child cases of all time was the Lindbergh baby in the 1930s. More than 200 people came forward and confessed to being the culprit.

Police and prosecutors know that confessions to notorious cold cases must be treated with utmost care and caution, given this precedent, which is why the investigation for corroborating evidence of any kind will continue. Corroborating evidence – which could be as simple as someone who can testify that she saw Patz go into Hernandez’s shop on the morning he disappeared, or as conclusive as the boy’s DNA evidence found in the basement of the building where the shop used to be – is not necessary for a conviction, but it certainly helps.

Another problem for the police and prosecutors is that Hernandez had no motive to kill the boy. He does not have any kind of a criminal history or record that would tend to show that he has a history of abusing children.

One thing that lends credibility to Hernandez’s confession is the amount of detail he went into when describing what he did following the killing. He precisely describes the layout of the shop where he worked and of the basement area, leading investigators to look to old blueprints of that building to see if they match Hernandez’s descriptions.

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