Retrial set to open in 1979 missing-child case of Etan Patz

NEW YORK (AP) — One of the nation’s most influential missing-child cases is about to be laid out for a jury — again — as a retrial begins in the 1979 disappearance of Etan Patz. Opening statements are set for Wednesday in a case that eluded investigators for decades, racheted up Americans’ consciousness of missing children and now centers on whether a chilling confession was true.

A jury deadlocked last year on the murder and kidnapping charges against Pedro Hernandez, a former convenience store stock clerk in Etan’s Manhattan neighborhood. Prosecutors say Hernandez hid a brutal secret for more than 30 years. His lawyers say he’s mentally ill and falsely confessed to waylaying and killing Etan as he walked to his school bus stop on May 25, 1979.  

Etan’s 6-year-old face became one of the first missing children’s portraits that Americans saw on milk cartons, and the anniversary of his disappearance became National Missing Children’s Day. His parents helped push for a law that modernized how law enforcement handles missing-child cases.

But his body has never been found. “Obviously, this case is 37 years old,” Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi told prospective jurors during a weeks-long selection process. But “anyone who has a murdered or kidnapped loved one is always going to be searching for answers.”

Hernandez’ lawyers say that search has led to the wrong man. “As human beings, all of us … have sympathy for the Patz family. That is not the issue here,” defense lawyer Harvey Fishbein said during jury selection.

Hernandez, 55, of Maple Shade, New Jersey, wasn’t a suspect until police got a 2012 tip. It came from one of several relatives and acquaintances who later testified that Hernandez said years ago he’d killed a child in New York.

Hernandez himself then told authorities, on video, that he’d choked Etan after luring him into the convenience store by offering him a soda. “Something just took over me,” Hernandez said. “. . . I’m being honest. I feel bad what I did.”

The defense aims to persuade jurors the confession is fiction, imagined by a man with a history of hallucinations and an IQ in the lowest 2 percent of the population, and fueled by more than six hours of police questioning off-camera.

Defense 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 or not it actually happened, the defense doctors said.

“From his perspective, the level of reality is all the same,” psychiatrist Dr. Michael First, an editor of a widely used diagnostic manual for mental disorders, testified at the first trial. The defense 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.

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