NEW YORK (AP) – An enigmatic figure looms over the trial of a man who confessed to killing Etan Patz: the former suspect who some still believe is behind the disappearance of the 6-year-old on May 25, 1979.
Jose Antonio Ramos was never charged in the case that helped galvanize the national missing children's movement. But for decades, the convicted pedophile was considered the prime suspect, until the bombshell confession in 2012 by Pedro Hernandez, a former stock clerk who worked at a convenience store where Etan was headed when he vanished.
Hernandez's attorneys have been allowed to present to jurors evidence against Ramos at the trial — in essence mounting a mini-prosecution pointing to the former suspect in the hope of invalidating the confession given by the 54-year-old Hernandez.
An unlikely parade of high-profile witnesses have testified for the defense. They included a former Bronx assistant district attorney who first made a possible connection between Ramos and the Patz family in the 1980s, former U.S. Attorney Stuart GraBois and Mary Galligan, the FBI agent who had the case for a decade before she went on to head the investigation into the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
While most defense attorneys would be eager to pin a suspected crime on someone else, legal experts say the strategy is rarely allowed because it could confuse the jury and increase the burden for prosecutors. Judge Maxwell Wiley found good enough reason to allow testimony about Ramos.
Now, "not only does the prosecution prove the charged person did it, but now they have to prove the other person didn't do it," said Lissa Griffin, a Pace University law professor who studies the defense strategy.
There are boxes of files on the Ramos criminal probe, which relied on jailhouse informants to capture incriminating statements. Etan's father sued Ramos in civil court and he was found liable for the boy's death in 2004 in a default judgment.
Hernandez's name appears only once in law enforcement documents, on a police report listing the people who worked at the corner store near Etan's bus stop. Hernandez moved back to New Jersey after the boy vanished and was never considered a suspect.
Prosecutors say that only reinforces that authorities had the wrong man, and Hernandez's confession is sound. In hours of videotape, he calmly recounts how he lured the boy to the basement with a promise of a soda, choked him, put his body in a bag and the bag in a box and walked it a few blocks away. He was working at the corner store on May 25. And, at least five people have testified that over the years Hernandez told them a troubling story of abusing and killing an unnamed boy in New York.
Jurors also watched a video taken in the early 1980s by the Bronx District Attorney's office where Ramos says he knew a woman who had been hired to walk Etan and other neighborhood children home during a bus strike.
GraBois testified that Ramos said he was "90 percent sure" that a boy he took from nearby Washington Square Park was Etan. He said he tried to molest the boy, who resisted, and then put him on a subway. A former jailhouse informant working with GraBois said on the witness stand that Ramos admitted in horrifying detail that he molested Etan. He said he hinted about the boy being dead and buried, but never came out and confessed.
GraBois remains apparently convinced Ramos is behind Etan's disappearance.
In a terse cross-examination with Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon, GraBois said Ramos had "confessed to murdering and kidnapping Etan Patz."
"When did he tell you that?" she asked, incredulously.
GraBois backed off: "He never said he killed Etan Patz."
"It was your speculation?"
"That was the conclusion."
Galligan testified that she interviewed Ramos for four hours, and he told her he took home a boy named "Jimmy." But officials never followed the lead because they didn't believe him.
Ramos, now 71, did not take the stand; he said he would invoke his right against self-incrimination and would refuse to answer questions. He hasn't commented on the case and remains jailed in Pennsylvania on a Megan's Law violation.
The defense rested Monday and prosecutors began calling witnesses to rebut the testimony. Etan's mother Julie Patz testified that Ramos never knew her son.
Griffin said in the history of third-party culpability cases, this one is strong.
"Here the jury has a way of rejecting that confession," she said. "Basically the jury has to find first that Hernandez didn't do it, and Ramos did."