NEW YORK – An informant has emerged as a down-to-the-wire witness against the suspect in the infamous missing-child case of Etan Patz, prosecutors revealed Monday.
It's not yet clear who the person is or what information he or she has. But the disclosure adds a new element to the evidence against Pedro Hernandez, which has appeared so far to rest heavily on his confessions to authorities in 2012 and statements he allegedly made to acquaintances and relatives decades ago. His defense says his confessions were false and spurred by mental problems.
Jury selection is underway for Hernandez's murder trial in 6-year-old Etan's 1979 disappearance, which helped change the nation's approach to missing-children cases.
"We have informed the defense team that we have an informant who will be testifying against the defendant," Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon told a judge before prospective jurors arrived Monday.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers wouldn't say more about the informant, including how and when he or she got to know Hernandez. Hernandez, who turns 54 Tuesday, has been jailed since his May 2012 arrest.
For now, the informant's identity is shielded by court order even from Hernandez himself, though not from his attorneys, with state Supreme Court Justice Maxwell Wiley citing safety concerns. Defense lawyer Harvey Fishbein called those concerns baseless and said Hernandez should get to learn about the new witness.
"Mr. Hernandez may have some information on this person" that the court should know, Fishbein said. Wiley agreed to revisit the issue next week.
Hernandez's defense has focused on arguing that incriminating statements he's made — including videotaped confessions in which he calmly recounts choking Etan and disposing of his body — can't be trusted. His lawyers say Hernandez hallucinates, has a low IQ and struggles to distinguish reality from imaginings and has been prescribed anti-psychotic medication for years. He now denies killing Etan and has pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors say his confession was real. They note that Hernandez was a convenience-store stock clerk in Etan's neighborhood when the boy disappeared, and that a childhood friend, a prayer group leader and Hernandez's ex-wife all have said he told them in the 1980s that he'd harmed or killed a child in New York City, though defense court papers have said significant aspects of those accounts varied.
Etan was last seen walking to his school bus stop on May 25, 1979; the anniversary is now recognized as National Missing Children's Day. He became one of the first vanished children ever pictured on a milk carton, and his parents helped lead a push to approach missing children as a national problem that spanned individual police departments' jurisdictions.
Hernandez, of Maple Shade, New Jersey, came under suspicion when police got a tip in 2012.
Informants played a role in the case in the 1990s, when prison snitches implicated convicted Pennsylvania child molester Jose Ramos, then the prime suspect in Etan's disappearance. Ramos himself also had made incriminating statements but stopped short of confessing. He was never charged and now denies any involvement in Etan's disappearance.
Follow Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @ jennpeltz.