Packed court as 1979 New York child murder trial gets under way

Pedro Hernandez, who confessed to the 1979 killing of six-year-old Etan Patz, appears in Manhattan Criminal Court in New York in a Nov 15, 2012 file photo. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Pedro Hernandez, who confessed to the 1979 killing of six-year-old Etan Patz, appears in Manhattan Criminal Court in New York in a Nov 15, 2012 file photo. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
In this May 29, 2012 file photo, people walk past a street shrine to six-year-old Etan Patz, in front of the building where suspect Pedro Hernandez confessed to have strangled the boy in New York. -- PHOTO: AFP
In this May 29, 2012 file photo, people walk past a street shrine to six-year-old Etan Patz, in front of the building where suspect Pedro Hernandez confessed to have strangled the boy in New York. -- PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (AFP) - The man accused of kidnapping and killing a six-year-old boy in perhaps America's most famous missing child case went on trial in New York on Friday, 36 years after the crime.

Pedro Hernandez, 53, is accused of luring Etan Patz into the basement of the grocery store where he worked, before killing and dumping his body out with the trash on May 25, 1979.

Prosecutor Joan Illuzzi-Orbon said it was a crime "that changed the face of this city forever."

She told the 12-person jury that the blonde-haired Etan was a little man "with a big heart" and an "infectious smile" who was murdered before his mother even knew he was missing.

Etan vanished after leaving his parents' Manhattan townhouse to walk alone for the first time to the bus stop to go to school.

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 awakened millions of Americans to the dangers of child abduction, fuelling a generation of hyper-vigilant child rearing by parents terrified of letting their offspring out of sight.

Hernandez, arrested on a tip in 2012, confessed to police to killing the boy. He has since recanted and has pleaded not guilty.

His lawyer Harvey Fishbein says his client suffers from mental illness and has "borderline-to-mild mental retardation."

PACKED COURTROOM

The New York State Supreme Court was packed Friday for the start of the trial. The bald Hernandez sat motionless, dressed smartly in trousers and a pin-stripped shirt.

Etan's father, Stan Patz, took a seat in the courtroom but his mother is too upset to appear other than for her testimony.

A member of the public was ejected from the gallery after shouting "guilty" at the defendant.

Illuzzi-Orbon described Hernandez as a loner.

She said he "feels tremendous guilt," which is why he confessed privately to killing a child in New York, "but doesn't want to get caught."

His videotaped confession to police will be presented as evidence, as will a reconstruction of what happened in the shop, where Hernandez allegedly lured Etan with the offer of a soda.

"He immediately started choking the child," she said.

"You will hear him say (to police) that once he started, he couldn't stop."

He then dumped the child in a plastic bag, inside a cardboard box and left it out with the trash in the street.

Legal experts say prosecutors will have a hard time to prove their case. The trial could last until March or April.

NO EVIDENCE

The defence says no evidence ties Hernandez to the murder.

"There is no crime scene, no DNA... no finger prints," said Fishbein.

"No one saw him in the bodega," he added.

"He is inconsistent and unreliable, but he is the only witness," said Fishbein of his client.

Few clues were ever found to Etan's disappearance in the SoHo neighbourhood where he lived with his parents and disappeared.

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

In 1983, then US president Ronald Reagan declared the anniversary of his disappearance National Missing Children Day.

Etan was declared legally dead in 2001.

Hernandez's confessed in May 2012 came as a shock.

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

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