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Ethical and Moral Questions Around Murder of Boy in 1979

The shocking arrest of a man who confessed to killing a New York City six-year old in 1979 raises many questions, including whether police ignored the accused man's sister, who allegedly told the Camden, New Jersey, police that her brother might have murdered someone. Moreover, Pedro Hernandez, who has since been charged with the crime, told a prayer group in the 1980s he had killed a child.

The case raises ethical questions about the obligation of someone who may suspect a crime or may have been learned about it indirectly. Do they go to the police? American law in general does not require people to report their suspicions to law enforcement. However, what about their moral obligations?

There are other aspects of New Jersey law that require anyone who has reasonable suspicion that a child is being abused to report it to authorities. Is murder abuse? Generally speaking, clergy who know of crimes are protected from having to report them. Is a prayer circle the equivalent?

Questions such as these are swirling around as police try to gather information about a crime that took place more than 30 years ago. The store where Hernandez worked as a teenager is long gone, and the City of New York only keeps records of where garbage was dumped back to 1989. Hernandez has said that he strangled the child and placed him in a garbage can.

The boy, Ethan Patz, was one of the first missing children pictured on a milk carton. He disappeared as he was walking to his school bus stop in Manhattan.

Source: Times-Union, "In NYC missing boy case, complex question of duty," by Jennifer Peltz, June 3, 2012.

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