NEW YORK (AP) – The man charged with killing a 6-year-old boy who disappeared in 1979 is securing an unusual witness in his defense: a convicted Pennsylvania child molester who was long the prime suspect.
A Pennsylvania judge on Friday ordered now-jailed Jose Antonio Ramos to appear at Pedro Hernandez’ trial next year, The Citizens’ Voice of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., reported.
A civil court years ago declared Ramos responsible for the boy’s death, though he has denied involvement. Friday’s developments raise the prospect of Ramos taking a witness stand for the first time to answer questions about one of the nation’s most infamous missing-child cases.
“The jury should know that there’s someone out there with a lot more evidence against him than my client,” Hernandez’ lawyer, Harvey Fishbein, said by phone Friday.
The Manhattan district attorney’s office, which is prosecuting Hernandez, had no immediate comment on Friday’s developments in a court in Luzerne County, Pa. Ramos is currently jailed there on a charge of violating sex-offender-registration requirements.
Ramos’ attorney, Tom Marsilio, said his client has little to offer for Hernandez’ trial, The Citizens’ Voice reported. He told the newspaper he had declined a request from Hernandez’ attorney to speak to Ramos.
Ramos repeatedly said “no comment” to a reporter’s questions while being led in and out of court, the newspaper reported.
Etan disappeared while walking to his school bus stop on May 25, 1979. He was one of the first vanished youngsters featured on a milk carton, and his case helped mobilize a nationwide missing-children’s movement.
Hernandez, of Maple Shade, N.J., worked as a stock clerk at a store in Etan’s neighborhood when the boy disappeared.
Police said a tipster led them to Hernandez in spring 2012, and he then confessed to luring Etan into the store basement with the promise of a soda, choking him to death and leaving his body in a bag of trash about a block away. The body has never been found.
Fishbein has said Hernandez is mentally ill and made a false confession. Hernandez, 52, has pleaded not guilty. His trial is set for April.
For more than a decade before Hernandez’ arrest, investigators eyed Ramos, who had been dating Etan’s baby sitter. In 2000, authorities even dug up Ramos’ former basement in lower Manhattan, but nothing turned up.
Ramos was never criminally charged in Etan’s death. But after Etan’s parents filed a wrongful-death lawsuit, a 2004 civil court ruling held Ramos responsible for the boy’s death. The decision was made largely because Ramos didn’t entirely cooperate with questioning.
The defense “may seek to present evidence that Jose Antonio Ramos _ and not Pedro Hernandez _ is responsible for the disappearance of Etan Patz,” Fishbein wrote in court papers earlier this month.
The Manhattan judge overseeing the case agreed there was evidence suggesting Ramos had “information material to the trial” and asked Pennsylvania authorities to make him available for it, The Citizens’ Voice reported.
After Etan vanished, Ramos was convicted of molesting two other boys in Pennsylvania. Now 70, he spent more than two decades in prison.
He was released last November but immediately rearrested on charges of lying to police about where he planned to live.
Friday’s ruling means Ramos must either be brought from jail or, if he’s released beforehand, transported to New York for a hearing on whether to hold him there until the trial as a material witness, according to The Citizens’ Voice.
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