A 40-year mystery was finally laid to rest on Tuesday, as a New York City jury found a former store clerk guilty of the murder of 6-year-old boy Etan Patz, who became the first missing child to appear on milk carton.
The conviction of Pedro Hernandez brought new attention to this infamous 1979 missing child case, which not only changed the law regarding similar cases, but also led generations of parents toward a more hyper-vigilant form of child-rearing.
“The Patz family has waited a long time, but we’ve finally found some measure of justice for our wonderful little boy, Etan,” the victim’s father, Stanley Patz, told the Associated Press. “I’m really grateful that this jury finally came back with which I have known for a long time – that this man, Mr. Hernandez, is guilty of doing something really terrible so many years ago.”
Yet, Hernandez, 56, only became a suspect in 2012, after he confessed to his family and the police. According to police files, Hernandez said he lured the boy with an offer of soda into the basement of the shop, where he killed the boy, put him in a box, and dumped it in curbside trash.
However, his case was declared a mistrial in 2015 after the jury deliberated for 18 days. Hernandez’s defense lawyer said his client’s confession was a fiction coerced by police, as he is mentally ill with a low IQ and a history of hallucinations.
"I am so convinced Hernandez kidnapped and killed my son," Mr. Patz said at that time. "His story is simple, and it makes sense."
But Tuesday’s verdict, after nine days of deliberations, found Hernandez guilty for the boy’s murder and kidnapping, finally bringing an end to this high-profiled unsolved case.
"The defense threw a lot of theories out there – I call it spaghetti on the wall," juror Mike Castellon told Reuters, explaining that the jury accepted that Hernandez suffered from mental illness, but believed he could still tell “right from wrong.”
The case of the boy who vanished as he walked alone to a school bus stop on a May day in 1979 became a symbol of parental fear, prompting parents in the next generation to stop letting children walk alone to school or play unsupervised in their neighborhoods. The protective reflex against 'stranger danger' has become even more intense for some parents in recent years, as Christian Science Monitor blogger Amy MacKinnon described in 2012.
While cases of missing children abducted by strangers are still a statistical rarity, the issue has entered American consciousness. The anniversary of Patz’s disappearance was designated as the National Missing Children’s Day, and a new national hotline was established to make it easier for law enforcement agencies to share information about vanished children.
As Hernandez awaits to be sentenced later this month, his defense lawyer said they would appeal. However, for now, many are hoping the verdict will bring some peace to the Patz family and their many supporters.
"Etan is larger than his very little important life," Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon said during closing arguments in the 2015 trial. "He represents a moment in this city where there was a loss of innocence."
This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.