Jury selection begins for 1979 New York child murder case

New York Police Department spokesman Paul Brown holding an original missing poster of Etan Patz during a news conference near a New York City apartment building, where police and FBI agents were searching a basement for clues in the boy's 1979 disapp
New York Police Department spokesman Paul Brown holding an original missing poster of Etan Patz during a news conference near a New York City apartment building, where police and FBI agents were searching a basement for clues in the boy's 1979 disappearance, in an April 19, 2012, file photo. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (AFP) - Jury selection began Monday in the New York murder trial of a six-year-old boy who disappeared 35 years ago in one of America's most famous missing child cases.

Etan Patz vanished after leaving his parents' Manhattan townhouse to walk alone for the first time to the bus stop to go to school on May 25, 1979.

His parents only realised he was missing when he failed to return home at the end of the day. His body has never been found.

The case became a national cause celebre and awakened millions of Americans to the dangers of child abduction, helping to fuel a generation of vigilant child rearing with parents reluctant to let their offspring out of sight.

Pedro Hernandez (centre) appears with his lawyer Harvey Fishbein (left) in Manhattan Criminal Court in New York, in this file photo taken November 15, 2012. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Pedro Hernandez, 53, who worked in a nearby grocery store at the time, is charged with the murder and kidnapping of Etan. He confessed to police in 2012 that he murdered Etan, but has since recanted his confession and pleads not guilty.

Hernandez sat quietly in the New York state supreme court in Manhattan on Monday, dressed smartly in grey trousers, and a pin-stripped shirt and tie.

Criminal defence attorney Harvey Fishbein says his client suffers from mental illness and has "borderline-to-mild mental retardation".

Legal experts say the prosecutors will have a hard time to prove their case, in a trial which Fishbein said could last until Feb 24.

Judge Maxwell Wiley advised the first batch of prospective jurors of the "unprecedented" publicity surrounding the case and the length of trial, which he warned could last well into March and possibly April.

Prospective jurors took the oath to fill out a questionnaire truthfully in the first part of a selection process that is expected to take several days.

"This trial is going to be long. We anticipate that the case is going to take anywhere from two to three months to try," Judge Wiley said.

Police and prosecutors have struggled to find supporting evidence against Hernandez.

Hundreds of officers scoured SoHo, where Etan lived with his parents and went missing, but found few clues as to his disappearance.

Etan was declared legally dead in 2001.

His father was a photographer and the boy became the first missing child to be featured on milk cartons as part of a national search.

In 1982, then US president Ronald Reagan declared the anniversary of his disappearance National Missing Children Day.

Hernandez initially appeared to settle the mystery over Etan's disappearance when he came forward and confessed in May 2012.

He told police on video tape that he lured the boy to the basement of the store where he worked and strangled the child, before stuffing him into a plastic bag and packing him into a box.

Hernandez would have been 19 at the time of the murder.

Jose Ramos, a 71-year-old convicted sex offender, was long suspected of involvement but was never indicted in connection with the case.

He was jailed in Pennsylvania for more than 20 years for child molestation.

Etan's parents sued him and he was declared responsible in a civil action and ordered to pay US$2 million (S$2.67 million).