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NY murder trial begins in landmark missing child case

January 30, 2015

NEW YORK (AP) — A jury trial began Friday in a 35-year-old murder and kidnapping case that shaped America’s approach to missing children.

The defendant, Pedro Hernandez, was a teenage shop worker in 1979 when New York police jotted down his name among those of many people they met while searching fervently for a missing 6-year-old boy named Etan Patz.

But it wasn’t until 2012 that Hernandez emerged as a suspect. The apparent breakthrough in the case was based on a tip and a videotaped confession that prosecutors say was foreshadowed by remarks he made to friends and relatives in the 1980s.

His defense hinges on convincing jurors that the confession is false, along with suggesting that the real killer may be a convicted Pennsylvania child molester who was a prime suspect for years.

In considering evidence that reaches back to 1979, jurors will delve into a missing child case that helped inject a new protectiveness into American parenting. Last seen walking alone to his school bus stop, Etan became one of the first missing children featured on milk cartons. His parents helped advocate for legislation that created a nationwide law-enforcement framework to address such cases, and the anniversary of his disappearance became National Missing Children’s Day.

In opening statements Friday, Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon said Etan was a “tiny man with a big heart” who couldn’t wait to walk to the school bus stop by himself.

“You will see and hear his chilling confession,” Illuzzi-Orbon told jurors. “What you will see is someone who very keenly controls the information that he puts out.”

Hernandez’s defense, depends on convincing jurors his confession was false.

“He has visions. He hears voices,” defense lawyer Harvey Fishbein said. “He cannot distinguish between what is real and what is not.”

Etan was last seen alive walking to the bus stop in 1979. His body has never been found, and memories can falter with the passage of time. But the prosecutor told jurors that Hernandez, a teenager at the time of the crime, implicated himself long before police questioned him.

The trial is expected to last up to three months and feature witnesses including Etan’s mother, psychologists, an inmate informant who knows Hernandez, and possibly other informants testifying against the earlier suspect.

The seven-man, five-woman jury was chosen from a pool of about 700 people. Some openly wondered about bringing a case to trial after so many years.

“A lot of time has elapsed, and a lot of things have probably changed. ... It’s 35-year-old memories,” one man said during questioning earlier this week. He was not selected.

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