NEW YORK – Decades before he was arrested in one of the country's most haunting missing-child cases, Pedro Hernandez told people he had killed a child, police and relatives say.
His alleged remarks in the 1980s made their way just last month to New York City police, who say Hernandez then told them he'd strangled 6-year-old Etan Patz in 1979. Although one relative says she tried to tell authorities years ago about a rumor that he'd confessed in a prayer group to a child slaying, other people apparently stayed silent.
It's not yet clear what will become of a murder case that hinges heavily on confessions from a suspect who is schizophrenic, according to his lawyer. Regardless, the account of loved ones and acquaintances hearing his disturbing claim long ago raises a sensitive legal and philosophical question: What's a person supposed to do with information like that?
Are the obligations different for someone who is party to an oblique confidence about a seemingly serious crime than for an actual witness to one? What if the scenario is laced with family ties or religious fellowship?
In the U.S., relatives, friends and bystanders may well not be legally required to report such information to authorities. But ethics experts say people have a moral duty to do so.
And some have, even when it meant implicating loved ones in crimes as grievous as those of finance fraudster Bernard Madoff, arrested after his sons contacted authorities, and "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski, whose brother turned him in.
Not that that makes the considerations easy.
One of "the most commonly encountered ethical dilemmas in life comes when you're aware of somebody else doing something wrong," says ethics professor Kirk O. Hanson.
One of the first missing children ever pictured on a milk carton, Etan disappeared en route to his school bus stop in May 1979. Hernandez, now 51, was then a teenage stock clerk working at a convenience store near Etan's home.
Arrested last week, Hernandez is being held in a psychiatric hospital jail ward while authorities seek additional evidence and doctors evaluate whether he's mentally healthy enough for court. He hasn't entered any plea.
Investigators have slim prospects of finding physical evidence against Hernandez, who said he dumped the boy's boxed, bagged body in some trash. The convenience store has long since been turned into an optical shop. City records pinpointing where garbage was dumped go back only to 1989.
Authorities are looking to other elements that could undergird the case against Hernandez, including his '80s statements to a southern New Jersey prayer circle.
The leader at the time, Tomas Rivera, has told newspapers Hernandez confessed to the group he'd killed a child in New York City. Rivera said he didn't feel it was his place to contact police but told Hernandez' relatives they should.
Norma Hernandez said she heard secondhand about her brother's alleged prayer-circle confession and went to report it at a Camden, N.J., police station years ago. She said she gave a statement at a reception desk; Camden police have said they have no record she made a report.
"As a sister, I have compassion — he's family," she said this week. "But as a human being, if he did it, let him pay."
While she may have felt ethically bound to report what she'd heard, she might not have been legally required to do so.
New Jersey requires anyone with "reasonable cause" to believe a child has been abused to contact state child-welfare officials. Failure to do so is a violation, not a crime, but can carry fines and jail time.
While abuse could be construed to include killing a child, people who aren't doctors, psychologists or educators usually aren't prosecuted under the law, said Camden County Prosecutor's Office spokesman Jason Laughlin. And the statute of limitations for such violations is normally only a year.
Around the country, there are plenty of laws against covering up crimes, and some jurisdictions compel certain people to report suspicions of specific crimes — doctors to disclose gunshot wounds, for example. Several states have broader requirements, particularly for eyewitnesses, about reporting at least certain categories of crimes.
But in general, the American justice system doesn't require people to disclose information to police, legal experts say.
That's partly because of concerns about creating a society of spies or deluging authorities with gossip. But it also reflects a legal framework that emphasizes personal liberty and focuses more on saying what citizens must not do than what they must — with some notable exceptions, such as paying taxes.
"We're very leery of forcing people to actually take actions," said Dan Simon, a law and psychology professor at the University of Southern California's Gould School of Law.
But if the law doesn't dictate reporting information about a serious crime, conscience should, ethics experts say.
It's fair to try to verify the information first, but "while it is important to guard against false accusations, it is better for society to err on the side of over-reporting and allowing professionals to sift through the evidence," said Claire Finkelstein, a University of Pennsylvania Law School professor whose specialties include criminal law and moral philosophy.
For those who knew of Hernandez's alleged confession long ago, the calculus could have been complicated by religious or family bonds.
Legal and religious traditions provide considerable protection for a confidential confession made one-on-one to a clergy member.
That shield doesn't extend to prayer groups, but many operate on a what's-said-here-stays-here understanding, said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and political scientist affiliated with Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center.
"Certainly, it's a judgment call," balancing the group's promise of privacy against the broader interests of justice, he said. "Christian believers are taught to be forgiving. ... But at the same time, Christians realize they live in a community."
The balance can be wrenching for people in an even tighter circle: those who have to weigh whether to report a family member's possible involvement in a crime.
Empathy for the victim's family should tip the scale, says Hanson, who runs the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif.
"Your obligation to the people who are suffering," he said, "outweighs your obligation to your kin."
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Colleen Long in New York and Geoff Mulvihill in Haddonfield, N.J., and researcher Susan James in New York.
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