US & Canada

Etan Patz killing: Man guilty over boy's 1979 murder

A missing poster of Etan Patz Image copyright Reuters
Image caption No trace of Etan has ever been found

A jury in New York City has convicted a man for the 1979 kidnapping and murder of six-year-old Etan Patz, a case that haunted the city for nearly 38 years.

Pedro Hernandez, 56, was found guilty on the ninth day of jury deliberations and after two lengthy trials.

Hernandez, who worked as a shop clerk near where Etan lived, confessed to luring the boy into his basement with a drink before choking him to death.

A 2015 trial ended in mistrial after 18 days of jury deliberation.

Hernandez's own lawyers had argued that their client's confession could not be trusted, saying that he suffered from psychological problems and had intellectual difficulties that caused him to confuse fantasy and reality.

They said he was susceptible to being influenced by police investigators due to his low IQ.

His lawyers pointed to one moment during his hours-long interrogation in which he curled on the floor into a foetal position and repeatedly asked detectives if he could go home.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Pedro Hernandez was found guilty of murdering the young boy

Etan Patz had vanished while walking to a school bus stop on his own for the first time in the Soho neighbourhood of lower Manhattan on 25 May 1979.

In 1983 then-President Ronald Reagan declared 25 May National Missing Children's Day.

No trace of the boy has ever been found, and no physical evidence was presented during the trial.

"The disappearance of Etan Patz haunted families in New York and across the country for nearly four decades," Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said in a statement following the jury's verdict.

"Bringing closure on Etan's disappearance to the Patz family has also been among my highest priorities since I took office," he continued.

"Today, a jury affirmed beyond all lasting doubt that Pedro Hernandez kidnapped and killed the missing child."

Etan's disappearance changed how parents approached childcare in New York and around the nation.

His face became one of the first to appear on milk cartons asking for information about missing children.

The disappearance led to changes in parenting techniques, and the way that schools track their students who fail to show up for lessons.

Etan's parents, Julie and Stan Patz, called for a national fingerprint database, and for federal laws requiring parents to notify their schools when their children are to be absent, and for schools to notify parents if their child does not show up.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Stan Patz (right) reacts to news of the conviction

"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.

"It is Etan who will forever symbolize the loss of that innocence."

Hernandez was not considered a suspect until 2012 after his brother-in-law informed police that he had made statements about killing a child to several people.

He was investigated and interrogated, leading to a videotaped confession which prosecutors played multiple times during his trial.

"I just couldn't let go," Mr. Hernandez said in one of the interviews. "I felt like something just took over me."

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