NEW YORK (AP) – A former store clerk was convicted Tuesday of murder in one of the nation’s most haunting missing-child cases, the disappearance of 6-year-old Etan Patz on the way to the school bus stop 38 years ago.
Pedro Hernandez, who once worked in a convenience store in Etan’s neighborhood, had confessed, but his lawyers said his admissions were the false imaginings of a mentally ill man.
A 2015 jury had deadlocked following 18 days of deliberation, leading to a retrial that spanned more than three months.
This time, the jury deliberated over nine days before finding Hernandez, 56, guilty of murder during a kidnapping, resolving a case that shaped both parenting and law enforcement practices in the United States. Hernandez showed no reaction as jurors delivered their verdict.
“The Patz family has waited a long time, but we’ve finally found some measure of justice for our wonderful little boy, Etan,” said his father, Stanley Patz, choking up as he thanked jurors for reaching the same conclusion that he had: “that this man, Pedro Hernandez, is guilty of doing something really terrible so many years ago.”
He added: “I am truly relieved, and I’ll tell you, it’s about time. It’s about time.”
The verdict spurred tears from some pro-conviction jurors from the first trial, who had attended the second one after their own panel split 11-1 for conviction: “We love you!” the former jurors said of their successors. The lone holdout from the first trial didn’t immediately respond to phone and email messages about the verdict.
The current jury’s foreman, Thomas S. Hoscheid, said deliberations had been difficult, but “we had constructive conversations, based in logic, that were analytical and creative and adaptive, and compassionate.
“And, ultimately, kind of heartbreaking,” said Hoscheid, an electrical engineer.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said in a statement that the jury “affirmed beyond all lasting doubt that Pedro Hernandez kidnapped and killed the missing child” in “one of the city’s most famous and formative cases.” One of the trial prosecutors invoked the Bible in a news conference after the verdict: “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” Assistant District Attorney Joel Seidemann said, quoting from the Old Testament’s Book of Deuteronomy.
Still, the Patz family – which focused for years on another suspect before Hernandez’s 2012 arrest – may never know exactly what became of the boy. No trace of him has been found since the May day he vanished, on the first day he got the grown-up privilege of walking alone to the bus stop about two blocks away in a then-edgy but neighborly part of lower Manhattan.
Hernandez’s lead lawyer, Harvey Fishbein, said he would appeal.
“In the end, we don’t believe this will resolve the story of what happened to Etan back in 1979,” Fishbein said.
While the defense feels for Etan’s parents, “we think the emotions were very hard to overcome by anyone who touched this case,” he said.
Etan became one of the first missing children ever pictured on milk cartons, and the anniversary of his disappearance has been designated National Missing Children’s Day. His parents lent their voices to a campaign to make missing children a national cause, and it fueled laws that established a national hotline and made it easier for law enforcement agencies to share information about vanished youngsters.
And his disappearance helped tilt parenting to more protectiveness in a nation where many families had felt comfortable letting children play and roam alone.
“It is Etan who will forever symbolize the loss of that innocence,” Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi said in an opening statement.
The decadeslong investigation took investigators as far as Israel, but Hernandez wasn’t a suspect until 2012, when renewed news coverage of the case prompted a brother-in-law to tell police that Hernandez had told a prayer group decades earlier that he’d killed a child in New York. Authorities would later learn that he’d made similar, if not entirely consistent, remarks to a friend and his ex-wife in the early years after Etan vanished.
After police came to Hernandez’s Maple Shade, New Jersey, door, he confessed, saying he’d offered Etan a soda to get him into the store basement, choked him, put him – still alive – in a box and left it with a pile of curbside trash.
“Something just took over me,” Hernandez said in one of a series of recorded confessions to police and prosecutors. He said he’d wanted to tell someone, “but I didn’t know how to do it. I felt so sorry.”
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.
Defense lawyers and doctors portrayed Hernandez as man with psychological problems and intellectual limitations that left him struggling to tell reality from fantasy – and made him susceptible to confessing falsely after more than six hours of questioning. His daughter testified that he talked about seeing visions of angels and demons and once watered a dead tree branch, believing it would grow.
Prosecutors have suggested Hernandez faked or exaggerated his symptoms.
Jurors had different sticking points, said juror Cateryn Kiernan, who works in publishing.
Ultimately, the panel ultimately felt that Hernandez’s remarks to the prayer group “were very reliable” and corroborated by multiple people, including by Hernandez himself in later statements, said juror Michael Castellon, a construction company lawyer. As for Hernandez’s mental state, “we decided he has an illness, but that didn’t make him delusional,” said Castellon.
To him, the defense “threw a lot of theories on the wall,” but they didn’t stick.
Defense lawyers had also pointed to a different man who was long the prime suspect – a convicted Pennsylvania child molester who made incriminating remarks about Etan’s case in the 1990s and who had dated a woman acquainted with the Patzes. For years, Stan Patz sent him notes annually in prison asking, “What did you do to my little boy?”
The man was never charged and denies killing Etan.