June 11, 2012
The announcement last month by Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly that Pedro Hernandez was in custody after confessing to strangling 6 year-old Etan Patz more than 30 years ago brought back painful memories to both Etan’s family and to many New Yorkers.
Mr. Hernandez has been charged with 2nd degree murder and is undergoing psychiatric evaluation. His lawyer says that he has a history of mental illness that included hallucinations.
Most shocking, (if possible) was the revelation that in the 80s, Mr. Hernandez had confessed to a number of people in a church group to having killed a child in New York City and apparently no one in that group reported it to the police. That is very disturbing yet not uncommon.
Jennifer Peltz in her Huffington Post article entitled Etan Patz Case: A Complex Question of Duty in the Arrest of Pedro Hernandez writes that hearing disturbing claim raises a sensitive legal and philosophical question: What’s a person supposed to do with information like that? Are the obligations different for someone who is party to an oblique confidence about a seemingly serious crime than for an actual witness to one? What if the scenario is laced with family ties or religious fellowship? In the U.S., relatives, friends and bystanders may well not be legally required to report such information to authorities. But ethics experts say people have a more duty to do so.”
Jack Marshall of Ethics Alarms is more forceful. In his May 30th column: Reporting the Confessed Killer in Your Midst: An Ethical Dilemma that Isn’t he writes that we should not hesitate to report when made aware of a past crime because “by not reporting Hernandez, the family members and prayer group members placed every child the killer came into contact at mortal risk over three decades, and for all we know, he might have murdered some of them.”
Why are we so reluctant to report a crime?
In December 2007 the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency Forum on Witness Reluctance issued its 15-page report.
In its conclusion, the report says that “much attention is paid to the problem of crime and the development of an effective system of justice but less has been done to recognize the central role that witnesses play in solving crime and ensuring that justice is served. All of the laws, police, prosecutors, courts, juries, corrections, probation and parole and other infrastructure of the system are meaningless without witnesses who are willing to provide truthful information about what they know and swear to it in Court.”
The report listed a number of major causes of witness reluctance. Among them, the fear of retaliation, the fear of social rejection and individual apathy.
Fear is rarely a good motivator. We should overcome our fears and individual apathy when it comes to reporting a crime and remember that by doing so, we may save a life or many lives.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote:
“He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life”