A prosecutor called the 1979 disappearance of Etan Patz “a defining moment” that “changed the face” of New York City and pointed the finger of blame at former neighborhood bodega worker Pedro Hernandez as his retrial for allegedly killing the 6-year-old began Wednesday in the notorious child abduction case.
“His beautiful little big life was snuffed out by Pedro Hernandez, by the evil that lurks so close to home,” prosecutor Joan Illuzzi-Orbon told jurors as she displayed smiling images of the photogenic child again and again during a two-hour opening statement.
Pointing to a disputed 2012 confession from Hernandez, the prosecutor said he had lured Etan into the basement of the bodega where he worked with an offer of a soda and strangled him, but had never admitted what prosecutors claim was his motive — sexual abuse.
“Choking wasn’t the first thing that happened,” she said. “It was the second thing.”
While Illuzzi-Orbon’s argument tracked her opening at Hernandez’s first trial last year, which ended with jurors deadlocked 11-1 for conviction, Hernandez’s lawyers shifted their emphasis to target Jose Ramos, the convicted pedophile they claim is the real culprit in Etan’s disappearance.
Early in his opening statement, defense lawyer Harvey Fishbein displayed a picture of a wild-haired, bearded Ramos, long a favorite suspect of law enforcement because he knew a woman who had walked Etan home from school, and contrasted Ramos’ lifelong attraction to “young, blonde, white boys” like Etan with Hernandez’s lack of a record as a criminal or a pedophile..
“That just isn’t what we’d expect of person who killed a child at age 18,” he said. “The two just don’t go together. You want to know what goes together? Look at Ramos. That’s what goes together.”
Etan disappeared on his way to catch a school bus two blocks from his Soho home on May 25, 1979, in a mystery that prompted an unprecedented search and eventually triggered a national movement to protect child victims.
Hernandez, 55, of Maple Shade, New Jersey, was working as a clerk in a bodega next to the bus stop at the time. He was never a suspect until 2012, when a relative called police and said he had made incriminating statements years earlier.
He eventually confessed on video twice after a lengthy police interrogation, saying he stuffed Etan’s body in a fruit box and carried it to a trash bin two blocks away. Prosecutors said it was on the way to a dump before Etan’s parents knew he was missing. There is no body and no forensic evidence.
Hernandez’s lawyers have offered a two-pronged defense — that the confession was a delusion caused by a mental disorder and pressure on a man of low intellect, and that Ramos did it. Ramos, who is imprisoned in Pennsylvania and has refused to testify, once told federal prosecutors he was with a boy who may have been Patz on the day of the disappearance.
Stanley Patz, Etan’s father, and Hernandez’s wife and daughter were in court Wednesday, along with seven jurors from the first trial. Adam Sirois, the lone holdout, told reporters he had spoken with the defense, and the new emphasis on Ramos was no accident.
Sirois said the former jurors at one point were split 6-6 while reviewing tapes of Ramos’ questioning from the 1980s. “The thing that caused the most doubt was Ramos,” he said.
Illuzzi-Orbon’s opening included emotional appeals — calling Etan “a very tiny man with a very big heart” and telling jurors his mom Julie Patz would testify Friday and then stay away because she can’t bear “to hear what this man did to her son” — and efforts to buttress the confession.
She said Hernandez “got out of Dodge,” leaving New York City to rejoin family in New Jersey shortly after the disappearance, and within months made incriminating statements at a church retreat about having done something to a boy in New York — repeated with variations in later years to his best friend and his wife.
The police only confirmed what he had already admitted to confidantes, Illuzzi-Orbon said. “If you have a weighty matter on your mind, these are people you would confess it to,” she said.
The prosecutor also dismissed efforts to implicate Ramos — “zero evidence,” she said — and mocked claims that his confessions were a fantasy as a phony ploy. “He’s not a Harvard scholar, but you will see that he’s no dummy either,” she said.
Fishbein warned jurors to be wary of emotional appeals. Everyone craves closure for the Patz family, he said, but a trial is not the place for jurors to try to provide it.
“This is not the Etan Patz trial,” he said. “This is the Pedro Hernandez trial. . . . There may be no resolution here. The only resolution may be that Pedro Hernandez is not guilty.”
Testimony is scheduled to begin Friday.