By Natasja Sheriff
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Prosecutors in the trial of a man who confessed to a decades-old murder of a New York City boy tried in court on Tuesday to undermine claims by the defense that an earlier suspect is guilty of the crime.
Pedro Hernandez, 54, a former grocery clerk, is accused of kidnapping and murdering 6-year-old Etan Patz in 1979 after telling police in 2012 that he choked the boy, stuffed him in a box and left him in a New York alley.
His defense attorneys blame Jose Antonio Ramos, a convicted child molester who was a longtime suspect in the case. Ramos' girlfriend used to walk Patz to school in his downtown Manhattan neighborhood.
The defense says Hernandez is mentally ill and his confession was coerced by police.
Patz vanished as he walked alone for the first time to a school bus stop on May 25, 1979. His disappearance sparked a national movement to find missing children, with his picture one of the first to appear on milk cartons.
On Monday, former federal prosecutor Stuart GraBois testified that Ramos told him in 1988 that he took a young boy to his apartment for sex on the day Patz disappeared and that Ramos felt “90 percent sure” the boy was Patz.
When the boy resisted, Ramos said he put him on a subway to visit an aunt, said GraBois, who led the investigation into Patz' disappearance from 1985 to 1991.
Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon argued on Tuesday that there was no evidence that Ramos and Patz ever met.
Ramos' girlfriend worked for the Patz family for less than a month in April 1979, and Ramos never came along when she walked the boy and his friends home from school, the prosecutor said.
Earlier, jurors watched a videotaped interview of Ramos, following a 1982 arrest, in which he said he never met Patz.
Ramos served 27 years in a Pennsylvania prison for the rape and molestation of three young boys in the 1980s. He was released in 2012 but promptly rearrested for breaking sex offender registration laws and returned to prison.
A judge found Ramos legally responsible for the death of Patz in a 2004 civil suit brought by the Patz family.
Patz has never been found, and he was declared dead in 2001.
(Reporting by Natasja Sheriff; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Eric Beech)