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1979 New York child murder trial gets under way

31 january 2015, 13:50

A mentally unstable man accused of killing a six-year-old boy in one of America's most famous missing child cases went on trial Friday, 36 years after the crime, AFP reports.

Pedro Hernandez, 53, is accused of luring Etan Patz into the basement of a New York grocery store, before killing Patz and dumping his body out with the trash on May 25, 1979.

Prosecutor Joan Illuzzi-Orbon painted a picture of a happy, innocent little boy who met a sudden, violent death, calling it a crime "that changed the face of this city forever."

The case awakened millions of Americans to the dangers of child abduction, fueling a generation of hyper-vigilant child rearing by parents terrified of letting their offspring out of sight.

Hernandez was arrested on a tip in 2012, and confessed to police to killing the boy. He has since recanted and pleads not guilty.

Illuzzi-Orbon told the 12-person jury that the blonde-haired Etan was a little man "with a big heart" and an "infectious smile" who was murdered before his mother even knew he was missing.

Etan vanished after leaving his Manhattan home to walk alone for the first time to the bus stop to go to school.

His parents only realized he was missing when he failed to return at the end of the day. His body has never been found.

The New York State Supreme Court was packed for the start of the trial. Hernandez sat motionless, dressed smartly in trousers and a pin-striped shirt.

   Low IQ 

 His lawyer Harvey Fishbein said Hernandez has an IQ of 70, which would put him in the bottom two percent of the population, and argued that convicted sex offender Jose Ramos was the real culprit.

Etan's father, Stan Patz, took a seat in the courtroom but his mother is too upset to appear other than for her testimony.

Illuzzi-Orbon described Hernandez as a loner.

She said he "feels tremendous guilt," which is why he confessed privately to killing a child in New York, "but doesn't want to get caught."

His videotaped confession to police will be presented as evidence, as will a reconstruction of what happened in the shop, where Hernandez allegedly lured Etan with the offer of a soda.

"He immediately started choking the child," she said. "You will hear him say (to police) that once he started, he couldn't stop."

He then dumped the child in a plastic bag, inside a cardboard box and left it out with the trash in the street, prosecutors said.

Legal experts say prosecutors will have a hard time to prove their case. The trial could last until March or April.

The defense says no evidence ties Hernandez to the murder.

"There is no crime scene, no DNA... no finger prints," said Fishbein. "No one saw him in the bodega."

    Few clues 

 Few clues were ever found to Etan's disappearance in the Manhattan neighborhood where he lived and disappeared.

His father was a photographer and the boy was the first missing child to be featured on milk cartons as part of a national search.

In 1983, then US president Ronald Reagan declared the anniversary of his disappearance National Missing Children's Day.

Etan was declared legally dead in 2001.

Hernandez's confession in May 2012 came as a shock. He would have been 19 at the time of the murder.

Ramos, a 71-year-old convicted sex offender, was never indicted but long suspected of involvement with the case.

He was jailed in Pennsylvania for more than 20 years for child molestation.

Etan's parents sued him and he was declared responsible in a civil action and ordered to pay $2 million.

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