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Prosecution’s closing in Patz retrial focuses on confessions

Rosemary Hernandez, left, Pedro Hernandez's wife, and his

Rosemary Hernandez, left, Pedro Hernandez's wife, and his daughter Becky, outside a Manhattan courtroom Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017, where he has faced a retrial for killing a 6-yearold Etan Patz in 1979. Credit: Charles Eckert

It’s all about the confessions.

That was the message Tuesday from a prosecutor to the jury in the retrial of Pedro Hernandez for allegedly killing Etan Patz, as she played bits of Hernandez’s recorded confessions over and over, and peppered her summation with admissions he made to a prayer group, a friend and an ex-wife.

“This guy keeps confessing and confessing and confessing,” said prosecutor Joan Illuzzi-Orbon, dismissing defense claims that Hernandez hallucinated his guilt due to a mental disorder. “He’s got a then-and-now problem. He confessed then, and he’s confessing now. It’s hard to explain away 30 years of confessions.”

Hernandez, 55, of Maple Shade, New Jersey, was a clerk in a Soho neighborhood bodega next to the bus stop where 6-year-old Etan was headed when he disappeared in 1979.

He emerged as a suspect in 2012 when a relative tipped police, and he confessed on videotape after a lengthy interrogation.

Hernandez told police, and repeated in later statements to prosecutors and psychiatric experts, that he lured the boy into the bodega basement by offering a soda, strangled him, put the body in a garbage bag and a produce box, and lugged it on his shoulder to a garbage bin two blocks away. A body was never found.

The two-pronged defense strategy has been to blame another suspect in the case, a convicted molester who had a link to the Patz family, and to claim Hernandez’s confession was a delusion of guilt stemming from a low IQ and a mental disorder. The first trial in Manhattan Supreme Court in 2015 ended with a hung jury, deadlocked 11-1 for conviction after 17 days of deliberation.

Hernandez never gave a motive in his purported confessions — “Something just took over me,” he said in one recorded statement — but Illuzzi-Orbon told the jury the motive was sexual, citing testimony from members of a prayer group who said Hernandez asked forgiveness for abusing a boy shortly after Etan’s disappearance.

She also said that when he told police his legs were “shaking” and “jumping” as he strangled Etan, it was a “visceral” tipoff of a sexual event, and urged them to see Hernandez as a predator who had stalked Etan and knew how to lure him into the bodega basement, not a dim-witted store clerk.

“The defendant knew the offer of the soda would be the perfect opening,” she said. “ . . . The defendant was keenly watching and admiring this beautiful boy.”

In addition to hammering on Hernandez’s multiple incriminating statements, Illuzzi-Orbon made emotional appeals to the jury — referring to Etan as a “little peanut” desperate to become “a big boy,” and using his parents’ grief to remind the panel of the role the case played in national awareness of child abductions.

“People became starkly aware that evil lurks around the corner,” she said. “Our way of life after Etan was sadder, more cynical. But Etan . . . by his death saved many other children from a similar fate.”

But she urged jurors not to be swayed by emotion.

“It is not sympathy that needs to be evoked here,” she said. “It is truth.”

The jury is expected to begin deliberations on Wednesday after hearing instructions from Justice Maxwell Wiley.

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