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Long-awaited trial to open in Etan Patz missing-child case

January 29, 2015

NEW YORK (AP) — The teenage stock clerk was just a name in a file for decades, one of many people police encountered while searching for a 6-year-old boy named Etan Patz. Thirty-five years later, Pedro Hernandez is going on trial in a case that defined the nation’s approach to missing children.

Opening statements are set for Friday in Hernandez’s murder and kidnapping trial. He emerged as a suspect in 2012, 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 will hinge on convincing jurors that the confession is false, along with suggesting that the real killer is a convicted child molester who was a prime suspect for years.

“It will be, I think, an extremely interesting case,” state Supreme Court Justice Maxwell Wiley told prospective jurors earlier this month, adding that those chosen would be in for “an experience they’ll never forget.”

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.

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.

Prosecutors have spotlighted Hernandez’s videotaped, hours-long confessions, in which he says he offered Etan a soda to entice him into the basement of the Manhattan convenience store where Hernandez worked. Then, Hernandez said, he choked the boy and dumped him, still alive, in a box with some curbside trash. Etan’s body has never been found.

“Something just took over me, and I was just choking him,” said Hernandez, 54. “He just kind of stood there, and I just felt bad, what I did.”

Defense lawyers say Hernandez’ confession is fiction, dreamed up by a mentally ill man with a low IQ and a history of hallucinations — and fueled by over six hours of police questioning before Hernandez was read his rights.

Hernandez’s lawyers also plan to point to longtime suspect Jose Ramos, a Pennsylvania prisoner who dated a woman who sometimes cared for Etan. Authorities said Ramos made incriminating statements when questioned about Etan in the 1980s, though he never confessed to killing the boy. Ramos has denied it, but a civil court found him liable for Etan’s death in 2004 after Ramos stopped cooperating with questioning.

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Associated Press writer Colleen Long contributed to this report. Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @jennpeltz.

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