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By Andrea Peyser
October 31, 2016
They just can’t let go.
Jury duty is long over. Yet for many of those who served on the panel that deadlocked last year in the emotionally wrenching murder and kidnapping trial of Pedro Hernandez — the former New York City bodega clerk accused of snatching and killing little Etan Patz more than a third of a century ago — the case that ripped them from their lives for nearly four excruciating months is far from over.
Seven who concluded he was guilty watched from the prosecution’s side of the spectators’ gallery as lawyers for the government began taking another crack at nailing the guy who confessed to strangling the child to death, long before today’s millennials were even born. The lone juror who voted “not guilty” crept in after his former cohorts arrived, taking a seat in the back of the room behind Hernandez and his defense team.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” a veteran defense lawyer told me.
The obsession with the case displayed by so many ex-participants isn’t normal. Nothing here is.
Shortly after a mistrial was declared in Hernandez’s first trial in May 2015, seven who voted for his guilt — more than half the jurors — sat down in frustration with prosecutors. The juror who voted “not guilty,” meanwhile, started consulting with defense lawyers.
Even routine pretrial hearings have drawn several ex-jurors. And many vow they’ll keep showing up in court as the trial proceeds until they see that justice is achieved — whatever that means to each man and woman.
It happened on May 25, 1979.
Ed Koch was mayor. A subway or bus token cost 50 cents. And the number of murders tallied citywide that year hit 1,733, despite a population that’s smaller than it is today. In comparison, 352 murders were reported in the five boroughs for all of 2015; 333 in 2014.
That was the day 6-year-old Etan Patz, the adorable child with an infectious grin, walked to the school-bus stop in his then-grungy Soho neighborhood alone, for the first time — and was never again seen by those who loved him.
Etan’s face, frozen in time, became the first to be pictured on milk cartons to publicize the plight of missing kids. May 25 was declared National Missing Children’s Day in 1983 by then-President Ronald Reagan.
Everywhere, freaked-out adults started overprotecting precious kids.
A seeming break came in 2012. Hernandez, now 55, who was living in New Jersey, was arrested after he confessed to New York police that he lured Etan to a basement with the promise of a soda, and strangled the child to death.
For 11 jurors, a “guilty” verdict was the logical choice.
“We felt very strongly then, and we feel strongly now, that it’s a very strong case,” former juror Cynthia Cueto told reporters outside the courtroom on the first day of Hernandez’s retrial.
Adam Sirois, the only juror to push for a “not guilty” verdict, might as well have been watching different proceedings.
“It’s very bizarre to me that this case even was brought to trial,” Sirois, 43, who works for a medical-research foundation, told me.
“I feel terrible for the Patz family’s loss. But the trial added to their grief.”
Sirois believes that Hernandez’s confession, which he has since retracted, was the product of a diseased mind. Defense lawyers claim he’s mentally ill, hears voices, and has rock-bottom intelligence.
With no witnesses to a crime and no forensic evidence, Sirois believes authorities have the wrong guy.
A more likely culprit, he said, is José Ramos, 73, a convicted child molester who dated Etan’s baby sitter. He was found civilly liable for Etan’s death in 2004 — but the verdict was overturned by a judge this year. He has never been charged criminally in the case.
Some ex-jurors accuse the stubborn Sirois of seeking attention, which he denies.
It’s unclear how much influence, if any, the impassioned observers have on current jurors, who risk another mistrial if they’re shown to have considered anything outside the evidence.
I may never know with absolute certainty if Pedro Hernandez committed these crimes. But if he’s proven guilty, I hope he’s locked up for the rest of his life.
Like so many people, I am riveted to the case of the lost boy.