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NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former delicatessen worker convicted of killing 6-year-old Etan Patz in a 1979 New York slaying that helped raise national awareness about the plight of abducted children was sentenced on Tuesday to 25 years to life in prison.
Pedro Hernandez, 56, showed no emotion as he was handed the maximum allowed sentence for the murder by Justice Maxwell Wiley in state court in Manhattan.
"Nearly two generations have come and gone since Etan disappeared," New York City District Attorney Cyrus Vance told a press conference after the sentencing. "But today ... justice has been served."
Hernandez, who a jury found guilty in February, declined to speak at his sentencing. His attorney, Harvey Fishbein, said Hernandez sympathized with the Patz family, but that he maintained his innocence.
"Pedro Hernandez is not the answer to what happened to Etan Patz 38 years ago," Fishbein said, adding that the defense team planned to appeal. "This is not the end."
Patz vanished as he walked alone for the first time to a school bus stop in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood on May 25, 1979. He would become one of the first missing children to appear on the side of a milk carton seeking information.
For more than three decades, the case endured as one of the country's most infamous missing child cases until police arrested Hernandez in May 2012 after receiving a tip.
Hernandez, who worked in a bodega near the bus stop, confessed to strangling the boy and then leaving his body in a box outside.
His lawyers argued the admission was the result of police coercion as well as mental illness that made it difficult for Hernandez to separate fantasy from reality. Patz's body was never found, leaving the confession as the key evidence at trial.
The defense also pointed to another man, Jose Ramos, a convicted pedophile who was long considered a suspect.
A previous trial ended in a mistrial in 2015 when a single juror out of 12 refused to convict Hernandez after weeks of deliberations, prompting prosecutors to retry him.
Stan Patz, Etan's father, expressed his gratitude after the sentencing. "I don’t think we ever believed that we could come to this point, that we would ever actually find out what happened to our child," Patz told reporters. "I am enormously grateful."
Additional reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Tom Brown