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Pedro Hernandez's childhood sweetheart testifies at Etan Patz murder trial that the defendant was 'warm and nice'

Pedro Hernandez's childhood sweetheart Yvonne Velez, 51, walks

Pedro Hernandez's childhood sweetheart Yvonne Velez, 51, walks in the hallway of Manhattan Supreme Court during the murder trial of Hernandez on Thursday, April 9, 2015. Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

Yvonne Velez, a childhood sweetheart of defendant Pedro Hernandez, was the last witness called in the Etan Patz murder trial, but her questioning Thursday followed a well-worn path by prosecutors to try to discredit defense claims he confessed due to a delusion caused by a mental disorder.

During the mid-1970s, when Velez was 12 and singing in the school choir and Hernandez was 15 and playing the bongos, she was asked if Hernandez talked to him by prosecutor Penelope Brady Thursday.

"No," answered Velez, now 51, through a Spanish interpreter.

Did he appear to be hearing voices? "No," she said again.

Did he tell her he was seeing things that weren't there? Or talk incoherently? "No," and "no," she responded.

By closing testimony in the two-month-long trial with that exchange, prosecutors highlighted one of the key issues jurors will have to resolve when deliberations begin next week -- could a man who appeared normal to most people around him nonetheless harbor a false fantasy that he killed someone?

Etan was 6 years old when he disappeared without a trace on his way to catch a school bus in SoHo in 1979. In a now-disputed 2012 confession, Hernandez told police that as a teen working in a neighborhood bodega he lured Etan into the basement and strangled him.

The defense contends Hernandez has a borderline IQ, was manipulated by police, and falsely confessed because of a condition called schizotypal personality disorder -- essentially, a mild form of schizophrenia -- that caused him to imagine a crime he did not commit.

For prosecutors, Velez was the last in a parade of witnesses -- from co-workers and supervisors to relatives and friends who knew Hernandez at various stages of his life -- asked the same litany of questions to establish how normal he seemed.

Velez said he was "funny" and "quiet," but "got angry" at times. "He was very serious," she said. "I looked on him as an intelligent person. He was warm and nice."

Defense witnesses have painted a different picture. Hernandez's daughter Becky and defense experts described him as an isolated man with eccentric habits who woke up screaming at night and recounted scary visions.

Defense lawyer Harvey Fishbein did not cross-examine Velez. He said afterward that prosecutors want jurors to think that if Hernandez didn't act like a raving lunatic -- a schizophrenic undergoing a psychic break -- in front of casual acquaintances, he must not be mentally ill.

"Someone who suffers from schizotypal personality disorder has some of the same traits, but they're subtler and not necessarily visible," he said. "Asking the witnesses about an extraordinary psychiatric disorder, which we're not claiming, is misleading."

In addition to claiming a mental disorder, the defense has tried to raise doubt about Hernandez's guilt by casting suspicion on Jose Ramos, a convicted child molester who had a link to Etan's family and once confessed, according to a jailhouse informant.

Closing arguments in the case are scheduled to begin Monday.

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