Etan Patz Case: Should Pedro Hernandez be Punished for the Killing of Etan?

Every court case is a story. On May 25, 1979 (exactly 33 years ago), Stan and Julie Patz decided it was finally time to allow their six-year-old son, Etan, walk to the bus stop by himself. Since it was only two blocks from their house, Mr. and Mrs. Patz felt he could manage the distance solo.

But Etan never boarded in the bus. In fact, Etan never saw his parents again. Instead, a man across the street called out to him, offering him to come into his convenience shop, “Bodega,” for a soda. Etan complied. In the basement, the 19-year-old man, Pedro Hernandez, strangled Etan and promptly placed his dismembered body into the trashcan. Nobody noticed.

When Etan didn’t come home that afternoon, Julie quickly called the police. Immediately officers and dogs were out patrolling, searching for Etan. Soon, his face was plastered all over lampposts in New York. And, shortly after, Etan became one of the first children to be featured as “Missing” on the side of milk cartons—a phenomenon that has largely disappeared today.

Meanwhile, Pedro Hernandez did not simply disappear. Instead, he went on living his life. Originally from Puerto Rico, Hernandez moved to New Jersey shortly after Etan’s death in order to be closer to some of his extended family. He started working in construction, got married and had a daughter who is currently college aged. Everyone who knew Pedro found him to be a devoted family man, one who was quiet and reliable. But something always bothered him.

As early as 1981, Hernandez is said to have confessed to close friends and family that he killed an unnamed boy—and he didn’t even know why. It tortured him to the point of insanity. His suicidal thoughts caused him to visit a psychologist just this last week. And as of yesterday, 32 years and 364 days since the murder of Etan Patz, he confessed to authorities.

The Etan Patz case inspires many questions: first and foremost, why did he do it? But a deeper look into the case may spur more questions about the nature of our justice system. In the past 33 years, there is no evidence that Hernandez has injured anyone. Indeed, it seems that he has been punished by his own crime day to day. Had he killed himself, would we feel that justice had been served? The purposes of the justice system are to reform and punish—but does it not seem that time alone has done both of these things to Pedro Hernandez?

It’s hard to advocate the freedom of a guilty man, but with a case 33 years stale it seems that critics of our system may argue that justice has been served. The Patz family has received their closure and proof that the man who took the life of their son could hardly live with himself. Now, only with a confession and no physical evidence, it is up to the jury to decide.