NEW YORK – Revisiting a crime that shattered a bygone era’s sense of safety, prosecutors on Wednesday launched their second bid for a conviction in one of the nation’s most influential missing-child cases, the 1979 disappearance of Etan Patz.
After a jury deadlock last year, suspect Pedro Hernandez is back on trial in a case that eluded investigators for decades, ratcheted up Americans’ consciousness of missing children and now centres on whether a chilling confession was true.
“It’s a cautionary tale, a defining moment, a loss of innocence,” Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi said as opening statements began. “It is Etan who will forever symbolize the loss of that innocence.”
With his father and Hernandez’s wife and daughter looking on, the trial began as an echo of the haunting story that unfolded over four months last year – so haunting that eight of the prior jurors and alternates were in the audience Wednesday to watch.
Prosecutors say Hernandez, 55, hid a brutal secret for more than 30 years. His lawyers say he’s mentally ill and falsely confessed to waylaying and killing 6-year-old Etan as he walked to his school bus stop on May 25, 1979.
“Pedro Hernandez is an innocent man” implicated only by his own imagination, defence lawyer Harvey Fishbein told jurors. “He’s not a child killer, but he’s an odd, limited and vulnerable man.”
Etan’s disappearance – on the first day his mother let him walk to the bus stop alone – did much to slam a door on a time when American parents felt comfortable letting children roam their neighbourhoods unaccompanied.
The body of the upbeat, trusting boy was never found, but his face became one of the first missing-children’s portraits that Americans saw on milk cartons. The anniversary of his disappearance became National Missing Children’s Day, and his parents helped push for a law that modernized how authorities handle missing-child cases.
Hernandez, 55, of Maple Shade, New Jersey, worked at a corner store by Etan’s bus stop. But Hernandez wasn’t a suspect until police got a 2012 tip from his brother-in-law. He was among several relatives and acquaintances who later testified that Hernandez said years ago he’d killed a child in New York.
Hernandez then told authorities, on video, that he’d choked Etan after offering him a soda to lure him into the store’s basement.
“Something just took over me,” Hernandez said. “I’m being honest. I feel bad what I did.”
Prosecutors suggest the motive was sexual and depict Hernandez as a cunning criminal. “You will see a man with very good memory, controlling and very aware of what he was going to say and what he wasn’t going to say” when he confessed, Illuzzi told jurors Wednesday.
But the defence says the confession is fiction, imagined by a man with a history of hallucinations and an IQ in the lowest 2 per cent of the population, and fueled by more than six hours of police questioning off-camera. No physical evidence or eyewitnesses connect him to Etan’s disappearance.
Defence psychological experts said Hernandez had given them dreamlike accounts of the killing, at points saying as many as 15 mysterious people were on hand, some wearing hospital gowns and pearls. He wavered on whether it actually happened, the defence doctors said.
“Pedro sees, hears and believes things that are not real,” Fishbein said, noting that Hernandez has been on antipsychotic medication since the early 2000s and, even in his recorded confessions to authorities, describes having seen his dead mother speak to him.
The defence also suggests the real killer may be a convicted Pennsylvania child molester who was a prime suspect for years. He has denied involvement in Etan’s death.