Etan Patz suspect's court date postponed to Oct. 1

June 20, 2012 - 9:15 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — Prosecutors made it clear Wednesday they are still investigating and assessing a case against a man charged in a notorious 1979 child disappearance, agreeing with his lawyer to postpone a court date for three months for both sides to keep gathering information.

Pedro Hernandez had been due in court Monday as doctors evaluate his mental fitness for trial in the murder case surrounding Etan Patz, one of the first missing children whose picture ever appeared on a milk carton. But the Manhattan district attorney's office said Wednesday that both sides had agreed to put off Hernandez's appearance to Oct. 1 "to allow all parties to proceed with their investigations in a measured and fair manner."

Hernandez's lawyer, Harvey Fishbein, declined to comment.

Postponing court dates is far from unusual. But the three-month timeframe appears to allow plenty of time for both sides to see what information might be available to strengthen — or weaken — a court case that arose from a confession from a man who has struggled with mental illness and hallucinations, according to his lawyer and family.

Hernandez, meanwhile, remains held without bail in a psychiatric hospital jail ward.

Hernandez was a teenage stock clerk at a nearby convenience store when 6-year-old Etan disappeared on his way to school on May 25, 1979, a date that would later be commemorated as National Missing Children's Day. A judge in 2001 declared him dead, but his body has never been found.

Hernandez's sister has said she heard second-hand that he told a church prayer group in the 1980s that he killed a child in New York City.

But Hernandez, now 51, wasn't eyed as a suspect in Etan's disappearance until last month, when a tipster contacted police.

Hernandez then told detectives he'd lured Etan into the convenience store with the promise of a soda, strangled him in a basement and left his body in some nearby trash, police said. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has said Hernandez' story was specific enough to make police "believe that this is the individual responsible for the crime."

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. has been more measured, at least in public, in sizing up the case. While prosecutors did file charges against Hernandez in May, Vance noted then that there was "much investigative and other work ahead," and he said a few days later that it would be "premature" to say how confident he was in the suspect's guilt.

Hernandez' lawyer and family, meanwhile, have pointed to his psychological problems. Fishbein has said Hernandez is a bipolar schizophrenic with a history of hallucinations. Through her lawyer, Robert Gottlieb, Hernandez' wife has said she believes her husband's confession isn't reliable.

A judge last month ordered an evaluation of whether Hernandez was mentally fit for trial. The results aren't yet known.

The three-month delay in bringing Hernandez back to court could let prosecutors further evaluate what evidence they can amass to bolster a confession in a 33-year-old case, and weigh their chances for conviction at a potential trial. Since Hernandez' arrest, investigators have been interviewing his relatives and friends, and authorities have searched his home in Maple Shade, N.J.

Citing grand jury secrecy, the DA's office declined to discuss whether prosecutors are seeking an indictment, a key next step in a felony case.

For the defense, the summer could be a window for learning more about Hernandez' psychiatric history and other aspects of the case.

While defendants have speedy-trial rights, their lawyers sometimes agree to allow prosecutors time to investigate in hopes the results will lead to lower charges or a dismissal — and out of concern that saying no will prod prosecutors to seek an indictment immediately.

"It was probably a sound tactical maneuver in this case," said Matthew Galluzzo, a former Manhattan prosecutor who is now a defense lawyer. He isn't involved in Hernandez' case.

___

Associated Press Writer Tom Hays contributed to this report.

___

Follow Jennifer Peltz at http://twitter.com/jennpeltz