MANHATTAN (CN) — Transporting jurors to a New York City of old, the same Manhattan prosecutor who failed last year to convict the suspected killer of 6-year-old Etan Patz delivered an emotional speech Tuesday about the 37-year-old crime.
“We’re all about to go back to 1979, a time in the city when many neighborhoods in the city looked more like small towns than a major metropolis,” Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon told jurors at Manhattan Criminal Court this morning.
New York City saw a spike in crime in the 1980s, but suburban imagery dominated the turn-of-the-decade Gotham in the prosecutor’s telling.
Patz’s metropolis was one in which a young child could walk himself to a bus stop in front of a corner bodega without fear.
Illuzzi said Patz turned up missing on the day of his first “big-boy” walk alone to the bodega — a place considered as a “safe haven” and “mecca” for the children who bought sweets there en route to school.
In Illuzi’s New York of the late 1970s, residents saw their sense of safety shattered when Patz disappeared, his angelic face becoming the first to appear on a milk carton as missing.
“It is Etan who will forever symbolize the loss of that innocence,” Illuzzi said, addressing jurors from a podium.
The prosecutor gestured at times during her opening to smiling photographs of Patz in a slideshow playing for the courtroom.
Images of the boy wearing his oversized “favorite” cap were interspersed with black-and-white shots of a sparsely populated Soho street corner, a memento of a forgotten New York City.
Everything old was new again in the seventh-floor courtroom, even the trial.
In May 2015, a New York jury that had listened to a speech much like this came back deadlocked three times, unable to find Pedro Hernandez guilty of murdering a boy whose body was never found. Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Maxwell Wiley declared a mistrial.
The setback stung Illuzzi, sidetracking her political aspirations to become district attorney of Staten Island.
Illuzzi’s return to the case, her electoral ambitions thwarted, mark a rematch against defense attorney Harvey Fishbein, the same man who represented Hernandez in the initial trial.
In the late afternoon, Fishbein snapped the courtroom out of its reverie of a sepia Soho seemingly pulled out of Norman Rockwell painting.
“In 1979, Soho was not an idyllic setting,” he said. “It was gritty. There were few residents.”
While a sprinkling of artists started homesteading the industrial neighborhood at the time, decades would pass before its cobblestone streets would enjoy their current reputation of money and glamour.
“Do not for a moment think that it is anything like what it is now,” Fishbein said.
Piercing through sentiment at every turn, Fishbein tried to implant reasonable doubt in the minds of a jury, using the same course of attack that he tried in the first trial.
Though Hernandez repeatedly confessed to the murder, Fishbein has long noted his client is not the only man who fit that description: At least two men claimed to have killed the 6-year-old Patz.
The other man was Jose Ramos, a convicted pedophile who bragged about killing Patz to a jailhouse informant.
In his disheveled mugshot, Ramos had a scraggly beard and a headcap covered in pins and other trinkets. Fishbein displayed that image for the jury, while describing Ramos’s record for luring and abusing boys who fit Patz’s physical characteristics.
Unlike his client, Fishbein said, Ramos had both the motive, history, and opportunity to harm the boy.
“He has been convicted multiple times for sexually molesting young boys, and will be committed to a prison in Pennsylvania for the rest of his life,” he said.
Around the time of Patz’s disappearance, Ramos had been dating a friend of the boy’s family named Susan Harrington, whom Fishbein noted also had a son Ramos had molested.
Pictured in the defense’s slideshow, Harrington’s son bore a remarkable resemblance to the young Patz.
“It was through Harrington that Ramos had access to Etan, another young, blonde white boy,” Fishbein said.
Last year’s trial introduced many to the science of false confessions, with psychologists who testified for the defense emphasizing Hernandez’s low intelligence, low-grade schizophrenia and suggestibility.
With an IQ of 70, Hernandez has less mental capability than 98 percent of the nation, and he has long taken antipsychotic medication to treat his diagnosed schizotypal personality disorder, according to his lawyer.
Illuzzi waged an anticipatory counterattack of this defense before opening arguments paused for a midday recess.
She told the jury that the recorded police interview Hernandez gave in 2012 was similar to his confessions in the 1980s, when he first told members of his spiritual retreat, his ex-wife and a trusted friend about killing the child.
The defense noted that each iteration of this tale changed. In one version, the victim was a black child; in another, the boy came on to him sexually and he rebuffed his advances before killing him.
Only one of the people who heard these variations repeated Hernandez’s story to the authorities, who finally acted upon the information in 2012 and elicited a final confession after a nearly 7-hour interview.
Illuzzi promised to show the jurors the footage that authorities recorded at the end of that interrogation.
“You will hear and see Pedro Hernandez’s chilling confession, and the manner in which he narrates the final moments of Etan Patz’s life,” she said.
The defense called this particular admission the coerced product of three seasoned detectives, who ignored three of Hernandez’s requests to go home and wore him down until he curled up onto the floor in a fetal position.
“You’ll see how they got inside his head using his religious beliefs, his mental illness, and his low intelligence,” Fishbein said of the identical footage.
Using the details of Hernandez’s purported confessions, prosecutor Illuzzi re-enacted the crime in a segment of her arguments that sparked a flurry of objections from the defense table.
“Objection,” Fishbein shouted as Illuzzi narrated the internal monologue young Patz might have had as Hernandez lured him into the basement of the corner bodega.
It was the first of many that Judge Wiley calmly overruled.
“What the defendant tells the police is that he immediately started to choke Etan,” Illuzzi said. “You will see him demonstrate how he wrapped his hands around Etan’s little neck and started to choke him.”
When Illuzzi suggested that choking was actually the “second thing” that happened, hinting at a sexual assault, Fishbein again registered a furious objection.
“Objection, Your Honor!” the defense attorney said, rising to his feet.
“Overruled,” Wiley said.
“Pure speculation!” Fishbein continued.
After lunch recess, Fishbein argued that the prosecutor’s arguments crossed the line of fairness, and he tried to derail the case in the middle of opening arguments with a mistrial motion, which the judge overruled.
What happened in the basement on May 25, 1979, or if anything occurred there on that day, cannot be known with scientific certainty, even if a jury will decide what happened beyond a reasonable doubt.
Patz’s body was never found, and neither were his book bag nor his clothes.
Decades of investigation uncovered no eyewitnesses, fingerprints, DNA, blood or hair tying Hernandez to the crime, or even verified a crime scene.
“He is the only witness against himself and if he was on the witness stand against someone else, you wouldn’t even consider his testimony,” Fishbein said, referring to his client.
Though the boy’s parents are now convinced that Hernandez killed their son, multiple reports show they used to blame the former suspect Ramos.
Several news reports say father Sam Patz repeatedly sent posters to Ramos with the question, “What did you do to my little boy?” scrawled on the back.
The second attempt to prosecute Hernandez will be a long haul, with Fishbein informing the jury that trial will continue for three months.
Witness testimony begins Thursday.
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