CRIME
01/30/2015 05:43 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2015

Etan Patz Murder Trial Begins With Defense Attacking Confession

(Adds details on defense opening statement, trial to resume on Monday)

By Natasja Sheriff

NEW YORK, Jan 30 (Reuters) - Mental illness sparked a false confession by the accused killer of Etan Patz and the real suspect in the 1979 disappearance of the boy in New York City is another man - a convicted child molester - a defense attorney told the jury on Friday.

In his opening statement at the murder trial of Pedro Hernandez, the attorney said investigations both immediately after the boy vanished on May 25, 1979 and later in 2012 turned up nothing to connect the former delicatessen worker to the crime, except his own words in a 2012 confession to police.

"He cannot distinguish between what is real and what is not," defense attorney Harvey Fishbein told the jury in a state court in Manhattan.

Massive publicity surrounded the 6-year-old boy's disappearance while walking alone to a school bus stop for the first time in New York's Soho neighborhood, sparking a national movement to find missing children. His body was never found; he was declared legally dead in 2001.

Fishbein urged the jury to set aside the confession, which Hernandez has recanted. He said his client has a mental disorder related to schizophrenia, sees visions and hears voices.

Fishbein promised to present testimony by a different suspect, Jose Ramos. Ramos dated a Patz family babysitter, was long considered the prime suspect and has spent 28 years incarcerated in Pennsylvania for sexually abusing boys.

"Cunning, manipulative, intelligent, despicable" was how Fishbein described Ramos, who in 2004 lost a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the Patzes.

Earlier on Friday, Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon promised that the jury would hear testimony from Etan's mother, Julie Patz, "about her quite ordinary life, a regular American tale, interrupted by a nightmare that never ended."

Hernandez, 54, is charged with kidnapping and murder.

Patz' disappearance prompted President Ronald Reagan to sign into law the Missing Children's Assistance Act, and Patz was one of the first missing children whose picture appeared on a milk carton.

In 2012, investigators received a tip from Hernandez's brother-in-law, who told police Hernandez allegedly confessed to the crime to a church prayer group in the 1980s.

Hernandez, in a videotaped confession to police, said he lured Patz to the basement of the deli where he worked near the child's home, strangled him and dumped him in an alley.

The defense fought to have the confession ruled inadmissible, arguing Hernandez did not understand his rights. But the judge has ruled that it was legally obtained.

Hernandez was 18 when Patz disappeared. He later moved to Maple Shade in southern New Jersey, where he was living with his wife and daughter at the time of his arrest.

The trial was set to resume on Monday before Judge Maxwell Wiley. (Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Bernadette Baum)