Etan Patz dis­ap­pear­ance heads back to court

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - By Jen­nifer Peltz

The re­trial of the case that re­shaped par­ent­ing and the pur­suit of miss­ing chil­dren could start Wed­nes­day.

NEW YORK >> It took nearly four decades to find and try a sus­pect in the haunt­ing dis­ap­pear­ance of first­grader Etan Patz. The trial it­self spanned three months of tes­ti­mony and 18 days of de­lib­er­a­tions be­fore a jury fi­nally dead­locked.

Now it’s about to un­fold all over again.

Man­hat­tan state Supreme Court Jus­tice Maxwell Wi­ley said open­ing state­ments are ex­pected as soon as Wed­nes­day in the re­trial of a case that re­shaped Amer­i­can par­ent­ing and the pur­suit of miss­ing chil­dren.

Etan, who van­ished while head­ing to his New York City school bus stop in 1979, was among the first miss­ing chil­dren whose face was put on milk car­tons, and his case prompted many par­ents to stop let­ting their chil­dren roam their neigh­bor­hoods alone.

Pros­e­cu­tors will have to re­assem­ble a mur­der case that was al­ready com­pli­cated by faded memories, the deaths of wit­nesses and the fact that no trace of Etan has ever been found. The de­fense goes in know­ing the last jury voted 11-1 to con­vict.

And Etan’s par­ents face revisiting their 6-year-old’s dis­ap­pear­ance and sus­pect Pe­dro Her­nan­dez’s ac­count of chok­ing him, given in recorded con­fes­sions that de­fense lawyers say were false. Still, Etan’s fa­ther has said the first trial suc­ceeded in pro­vid­ing long-sought an­swers for the Patzes, if not in re­solv­ing the case.

Now, fi­nally, “we hope it will be over soon,” Stan­ley Patz said by email last month, de­clin­ing to elab­o­rate ahead of the re­trial.

Etan dis­ap­peared May 25, 1979, the first day he was al­lowed to walk the two blocks to his bus stop alone.

Her­nan­dez was then a teenage stock clerk at a nearby cor­ner store. But he wasn’t a sus­pect un­til 2012, when his brother-in­law told po­lice that Her­nan­dez had told a sum­mer 1979 prayer group he had killed a child in New York. His exwife and a neigh­bor later said he’d also made sim­i­lar state­ments to them.

De­tec­tives then got a confession from Her­nan­dez him­self.

“I wanted to let go, but I just couldn’t let go. I felt like some­thing just took over me,” Her­nan­dez said on video, de­scrib­ing how he choked the boy after lur­ing him to the con­ve­nience store base­ment with the prom­ise of a soda. Pros­e­cu­tors sug­gest the mo­tive was sex­ual.

Her­nan­dez’s de­fense says the Maple Shade, New Jer­sey, man has men­tal prob­lems that made him imag­ine he at­tacked Etan. A de­fense psy­chi­a­trist di­ag­nosed Her­nan­dez, 55, with schizo­ty­pal per­son­al­ity dis­or­der; symp­toms can in­clude delu­sions, which Her­nan­dez’s fam­ily says he has had.

“Pe­dro Her­nan­dez is the only wit­ness against him­self,” de­fense lawyer Har­vey Fish­bein told ju­rors last year. “Yet he is in­con­sis­tent and un­re­li­able.”

The de­fense also ar­gued that a dif­fer­ent, long­time sus­pect was the more likely killer.

After the first trial, many ju­rors said they felt Her­nan­dez’s confession was com­pellingly de­tailed and sup­ported by his ear­lier ad­mis­sions. Some ju­rors at­trib­uted his men­tal prob­lems to a guilty con­science. But the lone hold­out said he felt that Her­nan­dez’s men­tal health his­tory was a big fac­tor and there wasn’t enough non-cir­cum­stan­tial ev­i­dence to con­vict him.

Pros­e­cu­tors’ and de­fense lawyers’ cen­tral ar­gu­ments and ev­i­dence haven’t changed, but both sides are ap­proach­ing the re­trial mind­ful of the dead­lock and the grow­ing pas­sage of time.

Dur­ing jury se­lec­tion this month, Fish­bein asked prospec­tive mem­bers to vouch that if they ended up be­com­ing a lone hold­out for or against con­vic­tion, they wouldn’t change their minds just be­cause no one else agreed. And pros­e­cu­tor Joan Il­luzzi asked whether any po­ten­tial ju­rors felt the 37-year-old case was “enough al­ready” and shouldn’t be pur­sued fur­ther. None said yes.

About 5 per­cent of felony tri­als end in hung ju­ries, and roughly one-third of them are re­tried, rather than plea-bar­gained or dis­missed, re­searchers have found.

Of­fi­cials and court groups don’t have sta­tis­tics on the out­comes of those re­tri­als. But anec­do­tally, most end in con­vic­tions, as do most tri­als in gen­eral, said James A. Co­hen, a Ford­ham Univer­sity School of Law pro­fes­sor who spe­cial­izes in crim­i­nal de­fense.


In this March 17, 1980, file photo, Stan and Julie Patz stand on the sec­ond-floor fire es­cape of the of their loft in the SoHo neigh­bor­hood of New York. Be­low them runs Prince Street, along which Etan, their son, set off to school on May 25, 1979. After a jury dead­locked last year Pe­dro Her­nan­dez, ac­cused of killing six-year-old Etan, is go­ing on trial for a sec­ond time, 37 years after Etan van­ished while head­ing to his school bus stop.


In this May 28, 2012 file photo, an im­age of Etan Patz hangs on an an­gel fig­urine, part of a makeshift memo­rial in the SoHo neigh­bor­hood of New York where the boy lived.


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