In 1979, a 6-year-old boy named Etan Patz disappeared while walking to his school bus. In the years since boy's body was never found, and he was declared legally dead in 2001. Patz's disappearance was a catalyst in the search for missing children in the U.S. Until 2012, the police had no breaks in the case. Then, police received a tip that a man had confessed to a church group that he was involved in the child's murder. But does the confession of a mentally ill man cloud its reliability?
Pedro Hernandez, 54, was arrested, and confessed that he lead the boy to the basement of a Soho deli, where Hernandez worked, strangled him and dumped the boy's body. Since 1979, at least three witnesses have reported Hernandez admitted to the crime. One woman testified that Hernandez confessed in a prayer circle after a day-long religious retreat. Two other witness also testified as to the prayer circle confession.
Hernandez is facing charges of kidnapping and murdering Patz on May 25, 1979. However, his defense attorneys say that police coerced the confession from Hernandez, and their client is mentally ill. They point to a suspect serving time for child abuse in a Pennsylvania prison as the true perpetrator, and cite the inconsistencies in Hernandez's story, changing since 2012. According to the defense, "He has visions. He hears voices. He cannot distinguish betweenwhat is real and what is not."
The New York times also cites a previous case of a mentally ill man exonerated for murder despite his confession. Douglas Warney was deemed innocent of the crime of murder, which had confessed to after a 12-hour interrogation. Warney had a history of mental illness, and combined with the work of overzealous interrogators, confessed to a crime he did not commit. He was eventually freed after nine years in jail.
Mental illness does not only affect claims of a false confession, but is a salient issue affecting criminal defense cases. Even after admitting to the crime, the defense argues that the defendant did not appreciate the wrongfulness of their actions due to a mental defect. Many people view the insanity defense as a way for criminals to get away with their crimes, but in reality, it is very rarely a successful defense. Some current high profile criminal cases may be attempting the rarely used legal defense strategy.
The so-called "American Sniper" trial involves a man charged with killing the movie of the same name's real-life subject. Routh, the Texas man charged with the crime, is expected to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, including evidence that he suffers post-traumatic stress disorder. However, history shows that insanity is a tough defense in Texas. As Texas prosecutor Marc Chavez said, "These insanity cases are rare; insane defendant's aren't rare."
James Holmes, the young man charged with killing 12 people in a theatre showing of a Batman movie in 2012, will now be facing trial. He has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. His own parents have said he was "a human being gripped by a severe mental illness." However, as one Denver attorney put it, "The reality is a successful insanity defense is a rare bird indeed." If found guilty, Holmes could face the death penalty.