A 56-year-old former convenience store clerk was convicted Tuesday of killing Etan Patz, the 6-year-old New York City boy who disappeared from his Soho neighborhood nearly 38 years ago and became one of the most visible symbols for missing children.
Patz went missing on his way to a school bus stop in May 1979 and was never seen again. His case shaped parenting and law enforcement practices nationwide.
Pedro Hernandez, of Maple Shade, N.J., was a clerk at a store in Etan's neighborhood when the first-grader disappeared. He confessed to choking the boy to death, but his attorney Harvey Fishbein argued during the trial that he is mentally ill and made up the confession.
Hernandez's defense team said evidence in the case points to another suspect with a connection to the family. The other suspect has never been charged.
Hernandez, 56, showed no reaction as jurors delivered their verdict, the Associated Press reported.
His first trial in 2015 ended with a hung jury after 18 days of deliberations. This time, a jury of eight men and six women reviewed more than 300 exhibits over the course of nine days of deliberations in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, NBC News reported.
As the verdict was read, the slain boy's father, Stan Patz, was comforted by the ex-jurors in the first trial, AP reported. He appeared to wipe tears from his eyes.
Authorities had said they may never know exactly what became of Etan, whose disappearance two blocks from his home in lower Manhattan made him iconic. He was one of the first missing children ever to appear on a milk carton, and the anniversary of his disappearance was designated National Missing Children's Day.
The case helped establish a national hotline for missing children and made it easier for law enforcement agencies to share information about them, AP reported. It also helped tilt parenting to more protectiveness in a nation where many families at the time felt comfortable letting children play and roam in neighborhoods alone.
"It's a cautionary tale, a defining moment, a loss of innocence," Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi said in an opening statement. "It is Etan who will forever symbolize the loss of that innocence."
DA Vance on the conviction of Pedro Hernandez for the murder of Etan Patz: pic.twitter.com/nUCL4UynHl— Cyrus Vance, Jr. (@ManhattanDA) February 14, 2017
Hernandez wasn't a suspect until 2012, when renewed news coverage of the case prompted a brother-in-law to tell police that Hernandez told a prayer group decades earlier that he'd killed a child in New York. Hernandez later confessed, saying he'd offered Etan a soda to get him into the store basement, where he choked the boy, put him — still alive — in a box and left it with a pile of curbside trash. His body was never found.
Defense lawyers and doctors portrayed Hernandez as a man with psychological problems and intellectual limitations that made him struggle to tell reality from fantasy. "Pedro Hernandez is an odd, limited and vulnerable man," Fishbein said in his closing argument. "Pedro Hernandez is an innocent man."
He and other defense lawyers pointed to a different man who was long the prime suspect in the case: a convicted Pennsylvania child molester who made incriminating remarks about Etan's case in the 1990s and who had dated a woman acquainted with the Patzes. He was never charged and denies killing Etan.
Fishbein said he will appeal Tuesday's verdict.
"In the end, we don't believe this will resolve the story of what happened to Etan back in 1979," Fishbein said.
Contributing: The Associated Press. Follow Greg Toppo on Twitter: @gtoppo