By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New Jersey man suspected of the 1979 killing of 6-year-old Etan Patz pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to murder and kidnapping charges, six months after police said he confessed to a chilling crime that has long haunted New Yorkers.
Pedro Hernandez, 51, of Maple Shade, New Jersey, said during police questioning in May that he had lured the boy and strangled him on May 25, 1979, but his lawyer said on Wednesday that he no longer admits to the crime. In the 1970s, Hernandez had worked at a deli near the Patz home in Manhattan's Soho neighborhood.
Patz disappeared while walking alone for the first time to a school bus stop, and his case helped spark a national movement on the issue of missing children. He was one of the first missing children whose faces appeared on milk cartons as part of an appeal for information from the public.
Patz's body has not been found but he was legally declared dead in 2001.
In the months after Hernandez's confession, a grand jury indicted him on two counts of second-degree murder and one count of first-degree kidnapping.
In a brief court appearance in state Supreme Court in Manhattan, Hernandez, wearing a gray fleece pullover and sweatpants, spoke only once, saying "not guilty" when asked to enter a plea to the charges. His wife and daughter attended the hearing but left quickly without speaking to reporters.
Hernandez's court-appointed lawyer, Harvey Fishbein, said authorities appear to have no physical evidence to corroborate Hernandez's confession. He said he plans to ask a judge to dismiss the case based on insufficient evidence.
"You can't support the indictment solely with these statements," he said following the court hearing. "There is no crime scene here. There were no witnesses to a crime."
He also repeated his assertion that the confession is false and that Hernandez suffers from mental illness, including hallucinations.
"He did not commit this crime," Fishbein said.
A spokeswoman for the Manhattan district attorney's office, Erin Duggan, has said prosecutors believe Hernandez's confession will withstand scrutiny.
For years, Jose Ramos, a friend of Patz's babysitter, was the prime suspect in the case, although he was never criminally charged. Ramos was found liable for Patz's death in a 2004 civil case.
Ramos, 69, was released in November from a Pennsylvania prison after serving 20 years for molesting children but was immediately rearrested on other charges.
Fishbein said on Wednesday that Ramos remains a "far more likely" suspect in Patz's disappearance than Hernandez.
Hernandez is expected to return to court on January 30.
(Writing by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Cynthia Osterman)