Jury selection begins for suspect Pedro Hernandez in murder of Etan Patz

Monday, January 5, 2015

NEW YORK -- Jury selection is underway in the murder trial of Pedro Hernandez, the man charged one of the nation's most infamous and enduring missing-child cases.

Prosecutors say the 53-year-old admitted to luring 6-year-old Etan Patz into a bodega in SoHo and strangling him back in May of 1979, but defense lawyers say he falsely confessed due to mental illness.

Hernandez became a suspect after police got a tip in 2012.

The boy's remains were never found.

About 100 prospective jurors began filling out lengthy questionnaires Monday.

State Supreme Court Justice Maxwell Wiley acknowledged that decades of publicity about the case means some potential jurors probably know about it. But he says that won't necessarily disqualify them.

"The publicity surrounding this case is, I would say, unprecedented," he said. But he noted that being aware of the case won't necessarily disqualify potential jurors if they vouch that they can decide the case impartially and based on court evidence alone.

The jury questionnaire, as yet unreleased, asks prospective jurors about their knowledge of the case and over 130 people who might testify or be mentioned, Wiley said.

Jury selection will likely take days. The trial could last three months.

Parenting experts wonder whether retelling Etan's haunting story will kindle new anxiety for present-day moms and dads who grew up in the protective shadow of his disappearance.

"I remember looking at that kid's face on a milk carton ... and thinking: 'Oh, Lord. Please help them,'" said Sheliah Bradley-Smith, whose grandnieces would disappear 22 years after Etan. "But never once would I think or imagine that I would be the 'them' I was praying for at that time."

The upcoming trial, to her, shows that authorities don't give up. "One thing we fear is being forgotten," she said.

After Etan disappeared while walking to his school bus stop on May 25, 1979, his case entered Americans' consciousness, and even their homes, in new ways. He was one of the first vanished children on milk cartons, and National Missing Children's Day marks the anniversary of his disappearance.

While there have always been protective parents, "fear became a national issue" with Etan's disappearance, said Susan Newman, a psychologist and parenting specialist. She expects the trial may reverberate through today's families, many led by parents too young to recall it happening.

Alarm intensified with the kidnapping and killing of Florida 6-year-old Adam Walsh in 1981 and other child abductions in the '80s and '90s. Frightened parents stopped letting children walk alone to school and play unsupervised in their neighborhoods.

New laws established a national hotline and smoothed law enforcement information sharing about missing children, and later the Amber Alert system began broadcasting news of them through radio and television stations and on billboards. Adam Walsh's father, John Walsh, launched TV's "America's Most Wanted," which ran from 1988 to 2011.

Yet there were nearly 34,000 active missing-child records nationwide at the start of this year, according to FBI statistics. Authorities cleared hundreds of thousands of other cases. A 2002 study for the U.S. Department of Justice found the vast majority of missing-child reports concern youths who ran away, got lost or injured, or were taken by relatives; abductions by strangers accounted for a fraction of a percent.

(Some information from the Associated Press.)