NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York City jury began hearing opening arguments on Wednesday in the retrial of a man charged with kidnapping and killing a six-year-old Etan Patz in 1979, a notorious case that drew national attention to the plight of missing children.
Pedro Hernandez, 55, is on trial in a state court for the second time in the death of the boy, who disappeared in lower Manhattan 37 years ago.
Hernandez’s first trial ended last year with the judge declaring a mistrial. Jurors deliberated for 18 days without reaching a unanimous verdict, which is required for conviction. Eleven of them had voted to convict, while one held out for acquittal.
A former delicatessen worker, Hernandez confessed to the crimes in 2012, but his defense attorneys say he is mentally ill and falsely confessed under police coercion. He could face life in prison if convicted.
Patz vanished as he walked alone for the first time to a school bus stop in the SoHo neighborhood on May 25, 1979.
On Wednesday, Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi told a newly selected jury that the case had “forever changed the face of our city.”
“It’s a cautionary tale, a defining moment, a loss of innocence in this city and in every city where it was written about,” she told the 12 jurors and five alternates.
Hernandez’s defense attorney was scheduled to make his opening argument later on Wednesday.
Patz’s picture was one of the first to appear on milk cartons, which in the 1980s became a popular vehicle for seeking leads about missing children. His disappearance also helped bring about a national database about such cases.
Despite a massive search, Patz’s body was never found. Then, in 2012, investigators received a tip from Hernandez’s brother-in-law, who told police Hernandez had confessed to the crime to a prayer group in the 1980s.
Hernandez, in a videotaped confession to police, said he lured Patz to the basement of the deli where he worked near the child’s home, strangled him, placed the child’s body in a garbage bag and a box, and dumped him in an alley.
He later recanted, and at the first trial, his attorneys argued he had a history of mental illness, including hallucinations.
During the first trial, the defense tried to blame another man, Jose Ramos, who dated a Patz family babysitter and was long considered the prime suspect.