The Legal Legacy of the Etan Patz Case Continues to Be Written

Aside from the water cooler stories that they share in the days after being dismissed, most Americans who serve on civil and criminal juries quickly put the experience behind them and resume their ordinary lives.

It is an exceptional circumstance when former jurors become passionate advocates for one side or the other.

When it comes to the ongoing personal involvement of former jurors, The People v. Pedro Hernandez is proving to be almost as landmark as the case itself.

The prosecution revolved around the disappearance of Etan Patz, a six-year-old New Yorker who vanished on his way to school in 1979 and has never been found. The case was - until the indictment of Mr. Hernandez in 2012 - one of the most famous cold cases in American history.

The story of the young boy, with his lengthy blond hair and mischievous smile, came to capture the hearts of millions of Americans. The failure of investigators to find his killer was a blemish on the justice system.

So profound was the impact of Patz’s case on the national psyche that in 1983 President Ronald Reagan established National Missing Children’s Day on the fourth anniversary of Patz’s disappearance. Dairy companies shortly thereafter established their milk carton campaigns on behalf of Patz and other abducted and runaway children.

With the declaration of a mistrial last month in the trial of Patz’s alleged killer, and recent statements made by members of the hung jury, it is clear that Etan Patz’s legacy will take on a new meaning within the legal community.

As The New York Times reported, eleven of the twelve jurors in Hernandez’s trial voted to convict the 54-year-old for Patz’s murder.

Juror v. Juror

He had, after all, confessed multiple times. The one lone standout juror, Adam C. Sirois, believed the confession to be rehearsed and coerced. Sirois stood his ground, under what must have been enormous pressure from his fellow jurors. After 18-days of deliberation, following months of testimony, the judge declared a mistrial on May 8th.

Now, nine members of the jury - including two alternates - have become proactive in the movement to retry Hernandez.

Likewise, Sirois has become outspoken in defending his vote and asserting Hernandez’s innocence. The accusations and name-calling from both sides, which held separate press conferences (featuring the nine jurors and Sirois) at the State Supreme Court in Manhattan this week, highlight the passions that such a case can arouse.

The jurors’ response also throws a public spotlight on the issue of jury selection. When they first entered the courtroom, the men and women on the jury in Hernandez’s trial were strangers. How much they knew about the Patz case is unknown.

With its media attention, the jurors, when first seated, were likely aware of the general details of the case, but certainly were not the highly vocal activists that they have become.

Who was to say upon the opening remarks of the trial which jurors would be most sympathetic to the Patz Family, and which to Mr. Hernandez? Could an experienced Courtroom Intuitive have detected Sirois’ iconoclastic approach to the evidence? (Of course, we believe the answer is a resounding, “Yes.”)

20/20 Hindsight

In hindsight, if those in the office of the New York County District Attorney had been forewarned about Sirois during the selection process, wouldn’t they have jumped at the opportunity!

Likewise, if Hernandez’s defense team could have identified what in Sirois’s background made him skeptical of their client’s confessions and gave him the strength of character to withstand the pressure from other jurors, wouldn’t they have sought to empanel others with a similar disposition? Wouldn’t all criminal defense attorneys want a Sirois on their juries?

If nothing else, such reflections on the mistrial in The People v. Hernandez, and the jurors’ behavior in the aftermath continue, to highlight the often bizarre, yet critically important, psychology of jurors and why it’s so vital for both sides to spot the “activists” who stream into the courtroom during selection.

These individuals can make or break a case. One of the lessons witnessed in the Hernandez trial.

[Judge Maxwell Wiley said this week that a new state Supreme Court jury will be selected before the end of the year in preparation for a retrial of Pedro Hernadez in 2016.]