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Judge in Etan Patz case sets sentencing date

A jury convicted Pedro Hernandez, 54, on Tuesday,

A jury convicted Pedro Hernandez, 54, on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, of kidnapping 6-year-old Etan Patz as he walked to a Soho bus stop in 1979 and then murdering the boy in the basement of a nearby bodega. Photo Credit: AP / Louis Lanzano

The judge in the Etan Patz trial on Thursday set an April 18 sentencing date for Pedro Hernandez and rebuffed defense motions for a hearing to find out how jury deliberations were affected by information that pro-conviction jurors from the first trial were attending with Etan’s family.

State Supreme Court Justice Maxwell Wiley said in a six-page ruling that the former jurors were entitled to attend the trial, and evidence the defense dug up — that at least two jurors and an alternate knew about it — wasn’t sufficient to show the February verdict was contaminated.

“The trial was held in open court,” Wiley said. “The defendant doesn’t have a cognizable right to determine who may sit in the audience, or that members of the audience remain entirely anonymous.”

Etan’s father, Stan Patz, and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., who is running for re-election, both lauded the ruling in brief back-to-back courthouse news conferences.

“We’re very pleased that the judge is going to go forward with sentencing and it’s finally going to be over,” said Patz, whose 6-year-old son disappeared in 1979 and who had to endure two monthslong trials, the first ending in an 11-1 deadlock for conviction.

Vance said he thought Wiley made the right decision. “We’ll move to sentencing and try to get this case one step closer to closure for the Patz family,” Vance said.

Etan went missing on his way to a school bus stop in SoHo on May 25, 1979. Hernandez, 53, of Maple Shade, New Jersey, was a worker in a neighborhood bodega at the time. Relatives tipped off police in 2012 that he had a possible role in the boy’s disappearance, and Hernandez confessed to strangling Etan, but the defense argued the confession was a fantasy caused by a mental disorder.

After the verdict, juror Michael Castellon told Newsday and news website DNAInfo that the panel had learned from court officers that members of the first jury were attending, and said he had been impressed by their commitment.

Subsequently, according to a defense investigator’s affidavit, an alternate also said jurors had known, and a second deliberating juror — Cateryn Kiernan — said she had been “baffled” when she learned from a source she couldn’t recall that spectators who she thought were Patz family members were actually ex-jurors.

Wiley said the fact that there was a previous trial had come out during testimony, and was not a mystery to jurors, and said there was no evidence of what the former jurors’ presence “might mean or imply” to the deliberating jurors.

Hernandez’s lawyer, Harvey Fishbein, disputed that, telling reporters that their attendance and seating with the Patz family was tantamount to extra unsworn witnesses saying his client was guilty.

“This is just another of a long list of issues that will be presented on appeal, and another reason we believe Pedro Hernandez never received a fair trial,” said Fishbein, who had asked Wiley to either conduct a hearing into what the jurors knew or overturn the verdict.

Several of the former jurors, who also served as consultants to the prosecution, were in court again on Thursday, but largely declined to comment. One said Stan Patz spoke for them.

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