MANHATTAN SUPREME COURT — The trial for the man accused of murdering 6-year-old Etan Patz more than 35 years ago began Friday morning and jurors heard two very different descriptions of the confessed killer Pedro Hernandez: a calculating criminal or a mentally disabled, innocent man.
During opening statements before a packed Manhattan courtroom, prosecutors described the 53-year-old man as a murderer who “keenly” controlled and hid the details of the SoHo boy’s death for decades. Patz, who prosecutors called a “a tiny man with a big heart,” vanished without a trace after walking to a bus stop for the first time by himself in 1979, leaving his family "devastated."
In his video-tapped confession, Hernandez told investigators that he strangled the child in the basement of a SoHo bodega he worked at and where Patz regularly visited.
“He was always waiting and wondering when his dark secret would come to light,” Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon told the jury. “Today is the day.”
Hernandez’s lawyer, Harvey Fishbein, scoffed at prosecutors description, saying Hernandez was a mentally-ill, intellectually disabled man who suffered from delusions and the confession he made two years ago was false and coerced.
Fishbein said in his opening that Hernandez “cannot distinguish between what is real and what is not” and asked jurors to consider the lack of evidence in the case — that no body was ever found.
After making his video-tapped confession without a lawyer present, Hernandez has since pleaded not guilty to the murder of the boy who went missing on May 25, 1979 while walking to a school bus stop — a case that long gripped the city and the nation.
Hernandez sat quietly throughout the morning’s opening arguments, wearing a striped white shirt, tie and khaki pants. His wife and daughter were seated in the packed courtroom.
The father of Etan, Stan Patz, also stoically sat through the first day of the trial — one that’s expected to last at least three months.
Prosecutors said Etan Patz’s mother, Julie, will testify in the case, but not Stan Patz. A number of friends, family and relatives that Hernandez told, with varied details, he killed a young boy will also take the stand, prosecutors said.
In May 2012, Hernandez, a husband and father of two from New Jersey with no criminal record, was arrested for the murder of Patz after a relative contacted police.
During pre-trial hearings in September, Hernandez’s lawyer tried unsuccessfully to have his client’s videoe confession barred from the trial because he argued Hernandez was “unreliable” and the video didn’t start rolling until after nearly 7 hours of unrecorded interrogation.
The taped confession shows a slow speaking Hernandez calmly telling investigators how he strangled the child in the basement of a SoHo bodega when he was 18-years-old worker.
On Friday, Fishbein urged jurors to look for the many inconsistencies in Hernandez’s confession. Fishbein said during the trial he’ll call psychological experts to testify regarding Hernandez’s mental conditions, including a mild form of schizophrenia. Hernandez has taken anti-psychotic medications for years, he said.
Along with psychological impairments and lack of evidence, Fishbein said his team will focus on another possible suspect in the case, convicted Pennsylvania child molester Jose Ramos.
Police have reportedly found little to no physical evidence to corroborate Hernandez's story. He's been in jail since his arrest in May 2012.
Patz, whose family still lives on Prince Street, was one of the first children to appear on milk cartons after he disappeared. A lengthy police investigation after he went missing proved inconclusive.
In 2001 the child was declared dead, even though his body was never found.