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Etan Patz case: Will self-admitted killer's prayer group confession hold up?

If charges are brought against Pedro Hernandez for the killing of Etan Patz, the case could turn on whether confession made to a prayer group is confidential like that made to a priest.

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A newspaper with a photograph of Etan Patz is part of a makeshift memorial in the SoHo neighborhood of New York, Monday. For prosecutors, the work is just beginning after the astonishing arrest last week of a man who police say confessed to strangling the 6-year-old New York City boy 33 years ago in one of the nation's most bewildering missing children's cases.

Mark Lennihan/AP

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The sister of Pedro Hernandez, the self-confessed killer of 6-year-old Etan Patz, says she heard her brother admit to a prayer group in the early 1980s that he had killed a child.

Will that confession stand up in court if the case ever goes to trial? Or, will the confession be considered “privileged” information the same as if it was told to a priest in a confessional?

The issue is important because so little evidence exists for a crime that was committed in 1979. According to news reports, the police are now trying to learn more about the garbage collections 33 years ago, since Mr. Hernandez claims to have stuffed the little boy’s body in a bag or box and put it out with the trash a few blocks from the site of the alleged crime. But finding any corroborating evidence such as the body or someone who saw Etan talking to Hernandez is still a long shot.

“In general, statements that are closer to the event seem more credible, more persuasive,” says Julie Seaman, an associate professor at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta. “If it [the confession] was done in a therapeutic context it is somewhat more credible,” she says. “But, in this case, I still don’t think it adds up to very much.”

The problem for the district attorney, defense lawyers point out, is the issue of whether or not Hernandez is mentally competent. Hernandez is expected to undergo extensive psychological examination to make that determination. “It is important not to rush to judgment about whoever did this,” says Annemarie McAvoy, a former federal prosecutor and an adjunct professor at Fordham Law School in New York. “Maybe in his twisted mind he has convinced himself he is responsible, or it could be some kind of dream world he is in – he may not have even seen him that morning.”

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