Painting a picture of a crime that shattered a bygone era's sense of safety, prosecutors on Wednesday opened the retrial of one of the nation's most influential missing-child cases, the 1979 disappearance of Etan Patz.
"It's a cautionary tale, a defining moment, a loss of innocence in this city and every other city where it was talked and written about," Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi said as opening statements began. "It is Etan who will forever symbolize the loss of that innocence."
Suspect Pedro Hernandez sat impassively as his retrial opened in a case that eluded investigators for decades, ratcheted up Americans' consciousness of missing children and now centers on whether a chilling confession was true. A jury deadlocked last year.
With Etan's father and Hernandez's wife and daughter looking on, the trial began as an echo of the haunting story that unfolded over four months last year — so haunting that many of the jurors and alternates from the last trial were in the audience Wednesday to watch.
Prosecutors say Hernandez, 55, hid a brutal secret for more than 30 years. His lawyers say he's mentally ill and falsely confessed to waylaying and killing Etan as he walked to his school bus stop on May 25, 1979.
Etan's 6-year-old face became one of the first missing-children's portraits that Americans saw on milk cartons, and the anniversary of his disappearance became National Missing Children's Day. His parents helped push for a law that modernized how law enforcement handles missing-child cases.
But his body has never been found.
Hernandez's lawyers say a decadeslong search has led to the wrong man.
"As human beings, all of us ... have sympathy for the Patz family. That is not the issue here," defense lawyer Harvey Fishbein said during jury selection. He's due to give his opening statement later Wednesday.
Hernandez, 55, of Maple Shade, New Jersey, wasn't a suspect until police got a 2012 tip. It came from one of several relatives and acquaintances who later testified that Hernandez said years ago he'd killed a child in New York.
Hernandez himself then told authorities, on video, that he'd choked Etan after luring him into the convenience store by offering him a soda.
"Something just took over me," Hernandez said. "I'm being honest. I feel bad what I did."
Prosecutors depict Hernandez as a cunning criminal, "a man with very good memory, controlling and very aware of what he was going to say and what he wasn't going to say" when he confessed, Illuzzi told jurors Wednesday.
But the defense aims to convince jurors that the confession is fiction, imagined by a man with a history of hallucinations and an IQ in the lowest 2 percent of the population, and fueled by more than six hours of police questioning off-camera.
Defense psychological experts said Hernandez had given them dreamlike accounts of the killing, at points saying as many as 15 mysterious people were on hand, some wearing hospital gowns and pearls. He wavered on whether it actually happened, the defense doctors said.
"From his perspective, the level of reality is all the same," psychiatrist Dr. Michael First, an editor of a widely used diagnostic manual for mental disorders, testified at the first trial.
The defense also suggests the real killer might be a convicted Pennsylvania child molester who was a prime suspect for years. He has denied involvement in Etan's death.