NEW YORK -- Painting a picture of a crime that shattered a bygone era’s sense of safety, prosecutors Wednesday opened the retrial of one of the nation’s most influential missing-child cases, the 1979 disappearance of Etan Patz.
“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.”
Suspect Pedro Hernandez sat impassively as hisratcheted up Americans’ consciousness of missing children and now centers on whether a chilling confession was true.
A jury considering the case last year deadlocked, leading to this year’s retrial.
With Etan’s 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 about 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 Etan as he walked to his school bus stop on May 25, 1979. It was the first day his mother granted his big-boy wish to make the two-block walk by himself.
It was an era when parents were more comfortable letting children roam their neighborhoods unaccompanied, even in New York City, Illuzzi stressed. And Etan’s case helped end it.
The upbeat, trusting 6-year-old’s body 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 law enforcement handles missing-child cases.
“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. He’s due to give his opening statement later Wednesday.
Hernandez, of Maple Shade, New Jersey, 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. While most stayed mum, the brother-in-law said he’d tried calling authorities for years but never got a response until 2012.
Hernandez himself then told authorities, on video, that he’d choked Etan after offering him a soda to lure him into the basement of the convenience store where Hernandez worked, right by the boy’s stop.
“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 defense aims to persuade jurors all Hernandez’ admissions are fiction, imagined by a man with a history of hallucinations and an IQ in the lowest 2 percent of the population, and eventually 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.