Jurors in the Etan Patz murder trial Tuesday got their first look at a videotape in which defendant Pedro Hernandez confesses to strangling the 6-year-old in 1979, but also recounts several key details at odds with facts described by other witnesses.
"I grabbed him by the neck," Hernandez says in one riveting sequence, putting his hands on his own throat to show how he says he throttled the little first-grader in a Soho bodega basement. "I wanted to let go but I couldn't . . . I felt like something just took over me."
The 2012 confession was shown at a pretrial hearing last fall, but jurors seeing it for the first time appeared rapt, intently taking notes and knitting their brows as they watched him describe the killing in a meek, singsong voice that had little affect or emotion.
Although it is prosecutors' primary piece of evidence against Hernandez, it contained important discrepancies with other testimony during the first two weeks of trial that could support defense claims that he made up the confession due to a mental disorder.
Among others, Patz's mother Julie testified that Etan wore an airline pilot's hat the morning of his abduction, but Hernandez said he had no hat. She said he had an open "tote bag," blue with white elephants and stuffed with pencils, erasers and matchbox cars.
Details in confession
Hernandez said he hurled a black "bookbag" over a walk-in refrigerator to a rear wall, but said nothing about toy cars flying from an open top.
"Would it be fair to say that things would have come out?" defense lawyer Harvey Fishbein asked a police officer on cross examination.
Patz disappeared on the way to his school bus in Soho on May 25, 1979. His body was never found.
Hernandez, 53, of Maple Shade, New Jersey, a teen working at the time in a bodega near the bus stop, is charged in Manhattan Supreme Court with murder and kidnapping.
He was questioned by police in 2012 based on a tip. He first confessed at the end of a lengthy NYPD interrogation, showed police where he dumped the body in Soho, then gave a third videotaped statement, lasting three hours with two rest breaks.
In that last confession, shown Tuesday, he said he lured Patz into the basement by offering him a soda, strangled him until his body went limp, then stuffed the boy -- still moving and gurgling, he claimed -- into a garbage bag and a box, and dumped it in an alley 1 1/2 blocks away.
Then, he said, he returned to work. "I just feel like nothing," he told the prosecutor questioning him. "Nothing happened. Like I did nothing wrong . . . I knew that I did something wrong, but it didn't bother me that much."
Witnesses from a New Jersey charismatic group have testified that in the summer of 1979, he said during a prayer retreat that he had tried to abuse a boy and killed him. In the confession, Hernandez said there was no sexual abuse, and couldn't give a motive.
"I tried to not do it, but something was pushing my hands to make me do it," he said. ". . . Why I did it I do not know."
The jury will have to weigh the admissions with the inconsistencies. Prosecutors say the school bus came at 8 a.m., but Hernandez said he found Patz at 10 a.m. Julie Patz said it was overcast on May 25, Hernandez said it was clear.
Prosecutors say he fled New York for New Jersey the day after the killing, but Hernandez said in his confession that he went to work and visited the alley to see if the body was still there, because he was thinking of putting it in a garbage can.
When he was asked why he hadn't done that in the first place, he said there were no garbage cans in front of the bodega. But pictures from 1979, put into evidence by the prosecutors, show a large Dumpster right next to the stairs into the bodega basement.
Sitting in court watching himself, Hernandez showed no emotion. On the videotape, he kept his eyes downcast and occasionally expressed regret for what he had done -- "I wish there was something I could do to pay back," he said at one point -- but did not cry when describing the killing.
He did cry, however, while discussing his background. He said his family had a history of bipolar disorder, and described his father as a mean drunk who repeatedly and painfully beat him, his siblings and his mother with a buggy whip, belt buckles and tree switches.
One time when he was hospitalized, Hernandez said, he saw an "apparition" of his dead mother in a white robe and sandals with long flowing hair, telling him, "Your father is not with us."
He thought, he said, that it meant his father was in hell.