The mother of Etan Patz, a 6-year-old boy who vanished on his way to school nearly 36 years ago, retook the witness stand Tuesday in the trial of her son's accused killer as prosecutors sought to undermine defense claims that police arrested the wrong man.
Julie Patz was the first witness to testify for prosecutors when Pedro Hernandez’s murder and kidnapping trial opened in January. At that time, she grew emotional as she described the last time she saw Etan, walking to his school bus stop in what was then the quiet, mainly industrial section of Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood.
On Tuesday, Patz was again the first witness as prosecutors began their rebuttal to the defense case. Under questioning from Assistant Dist. Atty. Joan Illuzzi-Orbon, Patz gave testimony that called into question the defense claim that Jose Ramos, not Hernandez, likely was Etan’s killer.
Patz said she could not recall ever meeting Ramos, who was dating one of Etan’s babysitters at the time. She also testified that she had no knowledge of Ramos ever meeting Etan and that she never knew the babysitter to invite Ramos to the Patz home while she was watching Etan. “Not to my knowledge,” Patz said.
Asked why she has not attended the trial daily since it began on Jan. 30, Patz replied, “I chose not to subject myself to hearing the details” of Hernandez’s confession.
Jurors have watched police video of Hernandez confessing to having abducted Etan on the morning of May 25, 1979. On that day, Patz allowed Etan to walk to the bus stop alone for the first time. The boy never was seen again, and his body never has been found.
In his confession, Hernandez said he strangled Etan, bundled his body into a box and left it in an alley in SoHo.
The trial has been closely watched because of the chilling saga of Etan’s disappearance and because of the legal twists as investigators tried for decades to identify the killer.
The disappearance drew national attention and spurred a movement to speed up and expand searches for missing children. The sandy-haired boy’s smiling face was one of the first to be featured on milk cartons.
Hernandez was not arrested until 2012, eight years after a New York civil court declared Ramos responsible for Etan’s disappearance. Ramos never was charged in the case and has always maintained his innocence. He remains in prison in Pennsylvania after his conviction on unrelated child molestation charges.
The defense’s case has hinged on trying to show jurors that Ramos is the likely killer, and that Hernandez’s confession three years ago was the result of police coercion.
“The only evidence against Pedro Hernandez are his words,” defense attorney Harvey Fishbein said Tuesday after court adjourned. “His words are unreliable.”
Fishbein has portrayed Hernandez as feebleminded and unable to stand up to the pressure of hours of police questioning. He also says Hernandez lacks the mental capacity to commit a heinous crime and conceal it for more than 30 years.
Prosecutors say Hernandez is sly and manipulative. “He’s a slipster,” Illuzzi-Orbon said.
At the time of Etan’s disappearance, Hernandez was an 18-year-old employee of a shop near the bus stop. He was arrested after people who knew him told police they recalled Hernandez confessing years earlier to having killed a child.