NEW YORK – Jurors will hear closing arguments from prosecutors in the case against a man accused of killing 6-year-old Etan Patz, whose 1979 disappearance while on his way to school helped galvanize the national missing-children's movement.
Pedro Hernandez confessed to the crime in 2012 in a case that has confounded law enforcement for decades. Etan's body was never found, nor was any trace of clothing or his belongings. The defense says the admissions are the fictional ravings of a mentally ill man with a low IQ.
Prosecutors will present their closing arguments on Tuesday.
"As I told you in the very beginning, Pedro Hernandez is the only witness against himself," defense attorney Harvey Fishbein said during his five-hour closing on Monday. "The stories he told over the years, including in 2012, and since, are the only evidence. Yet he is inconsistent and unreliable."
Hernandez was a teenage stock clerk in the neighborhood at the time Etan disappeared but had never been considered a suspect. His name appears in law enforcement paperwork only one time during their lengthy probe. The Maple Shade, New Jersey, man made the stunning admissions after police received a tip from a relative that he may have been involved in the case.
"I grabbed him by the neck and started choking him," said Hernandez, now 54. "I was nervous. My legs were jumping. I wanted to let go, but I just couldn't let go. I felt like something just took over me."
The confession video shows "a man sitting there convinced he killed a child — on a day that he doesn't know, at a time he doesn't know, at a location near a bus stop that he doesn't know," Fishbein told jurors.
"As we can see, there's no details he can give," the defense lawyer said. "But he's subdued because he believes he did this."
The trial began in late January, and jurors have heard from dozens of witnesses. Members of a prayer circle testified that Hernandez made tearful admissions during a retreat in the summer of 1979 that matched some of what he told authorities on video 33 years later: He gave a child a soda, took him to the store basement and choked him. One said Hernandez also admitted abusing the boy. When talking to police, Hernandez denied molesting Etan.
Mark Pike, Hernandez's former neighbor in Camden, New Jersey, testified that during a 1980 front-porch chat, Hernandez described how a boy in New York threw a ball at him, and "he lost it" and strangled the child.
"I just said, 'Why?'" Pike recalled. Hernandez gave no answer, he said.
About two years later, Hernandez told 16-year-old girlfriend Daisy Rivera he wanted to come clean about "something terrible" — he had strangled a "gringo muchacho," or white guy, who offended him while in New York.
The defense has suggested that another man, a convicted pedophile in jail in Pennsylvania, is the real killer. A former federal prosecutor and FBI agent who worked on the probe into Jose Ramos for years testified about how Ramos told them he was "90 percent" sure a boy he took from a park on May 25 was Etan Patz. A former jailhouse informant involved in the investigation testified that Ramos admitted molesting the boy while the men were roommates in prison.
"Two cases, two confessions," Fishbein said. "One, is by Pedro Hernandez, the other is by Ramos. Both cannot be true. Ramos could not have been with Etan Patz on the morning of May 25, 1979 if he was at the corner of the bodega. Pedro could not have seen Etan Patz at the corner and taken him down to the basement if he was with Jose Ramos."
"Two confessions," he said. "Which person is more likely to have been a predator?"
Ramos has denied having any role in Etan's disappearance.
Etan's photo was one of the first on milk cartons. The day he went missing, May 25, was later named National Missing Children's Day.