New Jersey

Judge Won't Toss Murder Conviction in 1979 Etan Patz Case

A judge on Thursday refused to throw out the murder conviction of a man in an infamous 1979 missing-child case and scheduled his sentencing.

Jurors who were unable to reach a verdict in the man's first trial on whether he killed 6-year-old Etan Patz have been a constant presence throughout his retrial, and they were again on Thursday, at a hearing to determine whether their attendance could have poisoned the second jury before it voted to convict him.

Four members of the first jury plus an alternate sat in the audience for the brief hearing. Among them was the lone holdout who refused to convict Pedro Hernandez in 2015 in one of the nation's most haunting missing-child cases. Many jurors attended the second trial and routinely sat with Etan's father, Stan Patz, weeping alongside him when a guilty verdict was read on Feb. 14.

Defense attorneys argued the second jury learned about the presence of the first jury's members, possibly from a court officer, and were improperly influenced by the spectacle. They said it meant Hernandez didn't get a fair trial.

Judge Maxwell Wiley disagreed, and he denied a defense motion to throw out the conviction.

"The trial was held in open court, open to any member of the public," the judge wrote. "The defendant does not have a cognizable right to determine who may sit in the audience, or that the members of the audience remain entirely anonymous."

The judge set a sentencing date of April 18, to the relief of Stan Patz.

"I think it's finally going to be over for our family," he said. "We've finally got some justice for our son."

Hernandez, who's 56, was a teenage stock clerk in Etan's Manhattan neighborhood at the time. He made a surprise confession to choking Etan in 2012, but his lawyers say that admission was the false imagining of a troubled man whose mind blurred the boundary between reality and illusion. They have vowed to appeal his case.

"We, as anyone, wanted this saga to end for the Patz family, for the city, but Pedro Hernandez is not the answer," attorney Harvey Fishbein said.

The investigation into Etan's disappearance and presumed death had long focused on another suspect, convicted pedophile Jose Ramos. Fishbein said Ramos was the real killer, but Ramos has denied that.

The second jury deliberated over nine days before finding Hernandez, 56, of Maple Shade, New Jersey, guilty of murder and kidnapping. The first jury deliberated for 18 days before deadlocking after a single juror wouldn't convict. 

Etan's disappearance captivated the nation. He was one of the first children to be pictured on milk cartons after he vanished May 25, 1979, on his way to school. His case shaped both parenting and law enforcement in the United States.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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