Se­cond trial in Patz case gets un­der way

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

Pros­e­cu­tors on Wed­nes­day launched their se­cond bid for a con­vic­tion in the 1979 dis­ap­pear­ance of Etan Patz.

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 cen­ters 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 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 her 6-year-old’s big-boy wish to make the two-block walk by him­self.

“Pe­dro Her­nan­dez is an in­no­cent man . an odd, lim­ited and vul­ner­a­ble per­son” whose only con­nec­tion to this case is hav­ing worked at a con­ve­nience store by the bus stop, de­fense lawyer Har­vey Fish­bein told ju­rors.

“This trial,” Fish­bein said, “will not an­swer the ques­tion of what hap­pened to Etan.”

Etan’s case did much to slam a door on a time when Amer­i­can par­ents, even some in New York City, felt com­fort­able let­ting chil­dren roam their neigh­bor­hoods un­ac­com­pa­nied.

The up­beat, trust­ing boy’s body was never found, but his face be­came one of the first miss­ingchil­dren’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.

Her­nan­dez, 55, of Maple Shade, New Jer­sey, wasn’t a sus­pect un­til po­lice got a 2012 tip from his broth­erin-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 base­ment of the con­ve­nience store.

“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 says 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 it ac­tu­ally hap­pened, the de­fense 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 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.

MARK LENNIHAN — AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A 2012 photo shows an im­age of Etan Patz hang­ing on an an­gel fig­urine, part of a makeshift memo­rial in the SoHo neigh­bor­hood of New York where the boy lived.

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