A jury ruled Tuesday that the man accused of killing 6-year-old Etan Patz decades ago is guilty of murder. The case became a cautionary tale for parents, and Etan's picture was put on milk cartons as part of a nascent national movement to find missing children.
The Patz case grabbed national attention when he vanished while walking alone for the first time to a school bus stop in SoHo on May 25, 1979. Etan was the first missing child put on milk cartons, and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has said his case was a catalyst for its creation.
Defense lawyer Harvey Fishbein argued in his summation that the real killer is convicted and now imprisoned child molester Jose Ramos, 73, who was a longtime suspect in the case.
Jurors delivered their verdict Tuesday. Hernandez's attorney Harvey Fishbein said during his closing argument that Ramos was the real killer. The jury had deliberated for nine days before reaching a decision in his re-trial.
"When I choked him, I tried to let go but my body was shaking and jumping at the same time", he said.
On May 24, 2012, nearly exactly 33 years after Etan's disappearance, investigators announced a new suspect: Pedro Hernandez.
In 2012, renewed news coverage of the case prompted Hernandez's brother-in-law to tell police his relative decades earlier told a prayer group that he killed a child in NY. Patz's body has never been found. "I'm really grateful that this jury finally came back with what I have known a long time, that this man, Pedro Hernandez, is guilty of doing something really bad so many years ago".
"It's a cautionary tale, a defining moment, a loss of innocence", Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi said during his opening statement when the four-month trial began.
But he wasn't a suspect until 2012, when his brother-in-law told police that Hernandez had told a summer 1979 prayer group he had killed a child in NY.
Hernandez, according to testimony at trial, made incriminating statements that varied in their details to a prayer group, an ex-wife and a friend. "I felt like something just took over me".
Prosecutors cast his confession as the chillingly believable words of a man unburdening himself, and they argued it was buttressed by the less specific admissions he'd made earlier.
The defense called mental health experts - whose conclusions were contested by prosecution experts - to testify that Hernandez had low IQ and suffered from schizotypal personality disorder, a mild form of schizophrenia, that could have produced delusions stemming from his own horrific childhood of abuse. Prosecutors suggest the motive was sexual.
Ramos never faced criminal charges and has consistently denied having anything to do with Etan's death.
For one juror, Hernandez's purported confession seemed suspicious.