By Natasja Sheriff
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Former grocery worker Pedro Hernandez will face trial again in February in the 1979 murder of six-year-old Etan Patz in New York after a hung jury forced a mistrial this year, a state court judge ruled on Monday.
A new jury will be selected starting on Feb. 22 to hear the kidnapping and murder case in state Supreme Court in Manhattan, Judge Maxwell Wiley said at a hearing.
Hernandez, 54, confessed in 2012 to choking Patz in the basement of a deli in the Soho district of Manhattan in 1979. Defense attorneys argued that the confession made by Hernandez, who they say is mentally ill and suffers from hallucinations, was coerced by police.
The boy's father, Stan Patz, attended Monday's hearing, where defense attorney Harvey Fishbein argued for an earlier start for the new trial.
"It's what's right. It's what's just. It's what's human," Fishbein told the court, arguing that Hernandez has been in jail too long awaiting a decision.
Wiley set the February start to give assistant district attorney Joel Seidemann, who is new to the case, time to prepare.
In May, Wiley ended an earlier trial by declaring a mistrial after the jury said for the third time during 18 days of deliberations that it could not reach a verdict.
Patz vanished on May 25, 1979, as he walked alone to a school bus stop in Soho for the first time.
His disappearance long haunted New Yorkers, who can recall the massive search for the boy. His picture was one of the first to appear on milk cartons in an effort to locate missing children. Never found, Patz was declared dead in 2001.
Hernandez was questioned in 2012 after investigators received a tip from his brother-in-law who said Hernandez had confessed the crime to a church prayer group in the 1980s.
(Editing by Laila Kearney and Mohammad Zargham)