Etan Patz Case: Pedro Hernandez's Mental Health, Confession Questioned

PHOTO: Pedro Hernandez, seen in this photo provided by "Inside Edition" was formally charged May 25, 2012 with second degree murder of the 6-year-old Etan Patz, who went missing in his Manhattan neighborhood while on his way to school in 1979.PlayCourtesy Inside Edition
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Since Pedro Hernandez's confession to the killing of Etan Patz last week, questions are beginning to rise regarding the man's mental health and whether he is telling the truth about what happened in lower Manhattan 33 years ago when he allegedly murdered the 6-year-old boy.

Despite his confession and the second-degree murder charges filed against him, police have offered no possible motive for the crime Hernandez allegedly committed as a teenager, leaving some skeptics wondering if he is admitting to something he didn't do.

As Hernandez's lawyer has said that he "has a history of hallucinations," a trio of forensic psychiatrists has spoken to ABC News about the considerations that come along with a confession from someone who has psychotic mental illness, Hernandez's mental state, and how it might impact the case against him.

"You have to rule out the possibility that he may be faking," said Dr. Harold J. Bursztajn, co-founder of the Program in Psychiatry and the Law at Harvard Medical School. "This may be a wish to get attention; it may even be an unconscious wish, a wish to feel self-important. That's something which needs to be explored in psychological examination."

New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said Hernandez, a 51-year-old New Jersey builder, had told relatives, friends and a church group as early as 1981 that he'd "done a bad thing and killed a child in New York."

While psychopaths generally show no remorse after they commit a violent crime, Hernandez reportedly broke down emotionally during his confession. Unlike most child molesters, Hernandez has no criminal record.

Dr. John Thompson, who is a director at the Division of Forensic Neuropsychiatry at Tulane University, said that a psychiatric evaluation and testing compared with forensic and other data should help lead to a conclusion regarding the accuracy of his confession. While he said that it is difficult to make conclusive statements about Hernandez's mental state given the limited information available, he noted that it is possible that psychological troubles could have led Hernandez to make up his story about what happened to Patz 33 years ago.

"Since one of the hallmark symptoms of schizophrenia is a delusion, or 'fixed false belief,' it is possible for such an individual to make a false confession," Thompson said.

Even if he was telling people about the murder, how did Hernandez provide such grisly details in his confession on how he choked Patz in the basement of a bodega and stored the body in the freezer before disposing of it in the garbage?

Dr. Park Dietz, president of Park Dietz & Associates, Inc. in Newport Beach, Calf., would not directly comment on the Patz case, but said that people with a history of psychosis may have a memory of events that is formed from other sources, such as news, gossip, dreams, fantasies and delusions. Until such details are supported by evidence, their validity is anyone's guess.

"All confessions to notorious cold cases must be treated with skepticism, whether the confessor is psychotic or not, and the determination of guilt must rest on the confessor giving details that were never released to the public and that can be corroborated and/or by the discovery of corroborative evidence," Dietz said.

But why did it take so long for Hernandez to confess to police that he killed Patz? Bursztajn said: "Conscience is timeless and becomes more pronounced as mortality becomes more a reality with age."

Still, forensic psychiatrists caution that all the facts in this case need to be collected and examined.

"The only way to tell if he is telling the truth or not is to go ahead and to get all the facts," said Bursztajn. "There has to be corroborative data as well. You need to see in which areas he is psychotic, and which other areas in which he may be sufficiently psychosis-free."

ABC News' Eileen Murphy contributed to this report