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Retrial of Accused Patz Killer Won't Answer What Happened to Boy: Lawyer

By Irene Plagianos | October 19, 2016 6:07pm
 Pedro Hernandez (right) is accused of killing 6-year-old Etan Patz in 1979.
Pedro Hernandez (right) is accused of killing 6-year-old Etan Patz in 1979.
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Stan Patz/ Steven Hirsch

MANHATTAN SUPREME COURT — Wearing a light pink button-down shirt, Pedro Hernandez sat quietly for hours Wednesday in a familiar courtroom, as prosecutors told jurors he was the confessed killer of a “beautiful” 6-year-old boy and his lawyers, once again, argued that he was an innocent, delusional man.

The retrial of Hernandez, the New Jersey man accused of strangling 6-year-old Etan Patz in the basement of a SoHo bodega in 1979, began Wednesday morning with opening statements from prosecutors and defense attorneys, before the same judge in the same courtroom where they stood last year.

Hernandez's first trial ended in a hung jury in May 2015, after 18 days of deliberations, when a lone holdout juror refused to convict the 55-year-old man in the boy’s death, saying he felt there wasn’t enough evidence to find him guilty.

At the heart of the prosecutors’ case against Hernandez remains hours of taped confessions in which Hernandez calmly describes strangling the small boy on Prince Street, then stuffing his lifeless body into a trash bag and throwing him onto a pile of trash a couple of blocks away.

Defense attorneys say those confessions were false stories coerced by law enforcement officials and the delusions of a man who takes anti-psychotic medications.

“He is not a child killer. He is an odd, limited and vulnerable man,” Harvey Fishbein, Hernandez’s longtime lawyer, told jurors Wednesday afternoon.

He implored jurors to separate “emotion from fact” in this trial, because it was “easy” to get caught up in the emotion behind the devastating case — Etan became national news when the little blond boy went missing walking less than two blocks to his SoHo bus stop. It was his first time making the trip alone.

It’s understandable that jurors might want to find resolution for Etan's long-suffering family, Fishbein said, but “this trial will not answer the question of what happened to Etan.”

Etan’s body was never found, nor any physical evidence.

Fishbein, however, squarely placed the blame for Etan's death on convicted child molester Jose Ramos, who remains jailed in Pennsylvania. Ramos molested the son of a woman who sometimes walked Etan to school, Fishbein said — a little blond boy who looked much like Etan.

Ramos has told law enforcement officials conflicting stories about his connection to Etan over the years, saying at one point that he was "90 percent sure" he met up with Etan on the day of his disappearance — but he has since denied any involvement in his death.

In May 2012, Hernandez, a husband and father of three with no criminal record, was arrested for the murder of Patz after a relative contacted police. Hernandez had given several inconsistent confessions over the years, including to a church group.

Prosecutor Joan Illuzzi painted a picture of Hernandez as not mentally feeble, but "street smart" and "controlling."  

She described what happened to Etan — the tragic story of a sweet little boy going missing on his first day walking by himself as a "loss of innocence in this city."  

Hernandez, 18 years old at the time of the crime, worked in a bodega on Prince Street frequented by neighborhood families, including Etan's. Prosecutors allege that Hernandez had killed the boy after sexually abusing him.

Etan, 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.

Patz family members, several of whom sat in the packed courtroom, have said they now believe Hernandez is the killer, after his first trial. Stan Patz, Etan's father, was flanked by several of the jurors from the first trial, who have become advocates for Hernandez's conviction.

Hernandez's wife and daughter, as well as the lone holdout juror in the first trial, Adam Sirios, were also present.

Hernandez has remained in jail since his arrest.

His retrial is expected to last about three months.