Friday, June 3, 2016

The Lone Juror: How Awareness of Wrongful Convictions is (finally) Making a Difference

Etan Patz 1979 Missing Poster

In 1979, bus stops, telephone poles and shop windows of Soho, New York were plastered with posters about a blond, blue-eyed little boy with a cheeky grin and a love of matchbox cars.  Etan Patz, was the first missing child to be featured on milk cartons.  His parents helped to spearhead a movement that changed the way that law enforcement and the public approached missing child cases.  The day of Etan's disappearance, May 25, 1979, was designated National Missing Children's Day in the United States in 1983, and in 2001, that tribute spread worldwide.   Sadly, despite all the monumental changes that came about because of him, 6-year-old Etan was never found.

But in 2012, NYPD announced an arrest in the cold case, a 51 year old resident of New Jersey named Pedro Hernandez, who was picked up after his estranged brother called in a tip, saying that Hernandez had "done something bad."  

Pedro Hernandez had been just 18-years-old in 1979.  He was working at a bodega in the neighbourhood where Etan and his parents lived (for the Kiwi readers, a bodega is basically a corner dairy).  May 25th was a Friday, and a very special day for Etan because, for the very first time, he was going to walk to the bus stop to catch the school bus all by himself.  Etan's parents had given him a dollar note and he'd told his mother that he planned to stop and buy a soda to have with his school lunch at the bodega, which was on the way to the bus stop.

Pedro Hernandez told detectives that Etan had entered the bodega that morning and that he, Hernandez, had strangled Etan and dumped his body in the garbage at the back of the store.
For the NYPD it was case closed, they had a confession and they were headed for trial.  But for one of the jurors, what came out during the course of that trial made him very alarmed about the strength of the State's case.

There was no physical evidence tying Hernandez to the case, which is not surprising since Etan's remains have never been found, and no crime scene has ever been identified.  That bodega where Hernandez worked in 1979 is long gone, bulldozed to make way for upmarket Soho apartments.  But a lack of physical evidence doesn't necessarily mean that a case can't be made. Circumstantial cases are common, we've just seen a perfect example of this in the New Zealand courts, in the case of Ashburton WINZ shooter, Russell John Tully.  The Crown's case against him was solid, but also largely comprised of circumstantial evidence.

But in the case against Hernandez, the circumstantial evidence was very problematic, and seemed to consist largely of rumour and hearsay.  There were claims that Hernandez had confessed to his church congregation in the 1980s, yet not one member of that congregation ever came forward until after Hernandez was arrested in 2012.  His siblings claimed that it was an "open secret" in the family, that Hernandez had murdered someone, yet they never came forward with this information until 33 years after Etan's disappearance.  

As for that confession....Hernandez confessed after seven hours of interrogation, most of which was not video taped despite the fact that it is mandatory practice for NYPD to tape all interviews.  Oh, and one more thing, Pedro Hernandez has a long history of mental illness, has been diagnosed with Schizotypal Personality Disorder, and has an I.Q of 70, which is borderline intellectually disabled.

Sound familiar? *cough*BrendanDassey*cough*

But, thankfully, there is a hero in this version of the #MakingAMurderer story, and that hero is Adam C. Sirois, the lone juror who refused to find Hernandez guilty, despite the fact that 11 fellow jurors all voted to convict, forcing a mistrial .  In subsequent interviews, Sirois has stated that he could not, in good consistence, find Hernandez guilty based on the State's evidence, and that the confession, to him, had all the earmarks of a false confession similar to that of Brendan Dassey.  Sirois make's no secret of the fact that watching Making a Murderer influenced his decision to deadlock the jury and I believe he did the right thing.

I don't know if Pedro Hernandez killed Etan Patz, I'm inclined to think he probably didn't but I don't know that for certain.  What I do know is interrogating a severely mentally challenged, mentally ill man for seven hours is unethical and reprehensible on the part of the officers involved!

After Making a Murderer, Serial, Undisclosed and the Adnan Syed case, and the flood of wrongful conviction horror stories, especially those based on false confessions, there is NO excuse for any law enforcement officer to engage in this kind of conduct.  This isn't just about a fair trial for defendants either, this is about the victims and their families, who are owed a thorough, above-board investigation and prosecution of the person or persons who victimised them.  

If Pedro Hernandez really did kill Etan Patz, NYPD owed it to Etan and to his parents to do the right thing, instead of engaging in blatant misconduct, the result of which was a mistrial.  If Pedro Hernandez really did kill Etan Patz and he gets away with it, that's on you NYPD, that is on you.

I called hold-out Juror, Adam Sirois, a hero.  The reason I call him that isn't because he freed Pedro Hernandez, a possible child murderer, because as I said, I don't know if Hernandez is guilty or innocent.  I called him a hero because he saw flaws in the State's case, and questionable conduct from police and he stood his ground, after enduring four months of trial testimony and 18 days of intense pressure from 11 people who all wanted to vote guilty and get the hell out of there.  Pressure from fellow jurors has led to convictions before, and to aquittals - including in the high-profile and highly controversial aquittal of four LAPD officers in the Rodney King beating.  

This man stood his ground, and in doing so, gave the State a do-over.  The mistrial means that they can re-investigate, find more evidence and retry the case, if they choose to.  The mistrial means that if Hernandez really is guilty, justice can still be done for Etan Patz.  

Jury Coercion and Peer Pressure - NYTimes

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  1. Sakura, of all the articles and blog posts I have seen on this case, yours contains the most inaccuracies. It's no wonder you support the hold out on this case, as you clearly are unaware of even the most general facts of this case. You should do your homework before writing such egregious statements.

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  3. You should also listen to podcasts, Actual Innocence, Breakdown, Phoebe's Fall, and Crime Writers On.