The long-awaited murder trial of Pedro Hernandez over first-grader Etan Patz's 1979 disappearance began Friday with a prosecutor charging the mentally challenged ex-bodega worker set a trap with a smile and a soda and then "snuffed out" a "beautiful life."
"This case is about a child lost to the world, and that fact should never be lost on you," Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon told an expressionless Manhattan Supreme Court jury as Patz's father and now-adult sister looked on.
But defense lawyer Harvey Fishbein told the panel that prosecutors had no evidence other than a confession police elicited in an interrogation of Hernandez -- a mentally ill man with a low IQ who sees visions, hears voices and has taken antipsychotic medication for years.
"He is inconsistent and unreliable -- not because he is a keen, calculating person, but because of his mental status," Fishbein said. "He is inconsistent and unreliable, and he is the only witness against himself."
Six-year-old Patz disappeared on the way to catch a school bus in his SoHo neighborhood on May 25, 1979, sparking a massive police search. He was one of the first missing children to appear on a milk carton, and his case began a national conversation on child victims.
Hernandez, 53, a married father from Maple Shade, New Jersey, was arrested in 2012 on a tip from a relative. In his confession he said that as a teen working in a bodega in SoHo, he lured Patz into the basement by offering the child a soda and then strangled him. He gave no motive.
Illuzzi-Orbon told jurors they could "imagine" that Hernandez probably did something else to Patz before killing him and said that in the 33 years before confessing he three times privately confided different versions of having once hurt a boy to a prayer group, a friend and his first wife.
She also revealed for the first time that Hernandez's estranged first wife, Daisy, would testify that she once found a cutout picture of Patz in a black box where he kept private mementos.
"She asked him about it," Illuzzi-Orbon said. "He responded with anger and said she shouldn't be going through his private things."
But much of Illuzzi-Orbon's opening was an appeal to sympathy, as she described Patz as a "little guy with a big heart" who set out to catch the bus by himself for the first time, clutching a book bag and a $1 bill for a treat at the bodega, a mecca of treats for neighborhood kids.
"It was at this bodega where Etan was to meet his murderer," she said. " . . . He didn't know that evil can greet you with a smile."
The prosecutor also said Patz's mother, Julie, who decided to let him go alone, would testify but not attend the trial. "She has had to pull herself out of the darkest place," Illuzzi-Orbon said. "She can't sit and hear what this man did to her child."
Fishbein hammered on the lack of physical evidence, noting police conducted a massive neighborhood search, including four searches of the bodega basement. But they never found the book bag Hernandez said he discarded in the basement, or the body he said he left in a nearby alley.
"The police were incompetent?" he said. "Or it just didn't happen."
He also told jurors about the tantalizing leads prosecutors had against another man -- Jose Ramos, a convicted pedophile who dated Patz's baby-sitter and once told a prosecutor he was 90 percent sure he picked up Patz on the day of the disappearance. But Ramos, who never completely confessed, has said he will refuse to testify.
Fishbein called the case against Hernandez "just another sad twist in this tragic saga," and warned jurors against trying to provide closure to Patz's family. "There will be no resolution for anyone," he said, "if the wrong person is convicted in this case."
The trial, expected to last two months, resumes Monday.