By Natasja Sheriff
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A new trial for the former New York deli worker who confessed to strangling 6-year-old Etan Patz in a case that changed the way the U.S. responds to missing children will open in 2016, a judge said on Wednesday.
A month after declaring a mistrial because of a hung jury, Judge Maxwell Wiley told Pedro Hernandez that a new jury would be picked as early as December to hear the kidnapping and murder case in state Supreme Court in Manhattan.
Seven jurors from Hernandez' first murder trial, in which a single holdout declined to convict him in the 1979 killing, returned to court to hear the judge's decision. The group on Wednesday included Adam Sirois, the holdout.
"I wanted to see what happened today," Sirois told reporters outside the courtroom, saying it will be difficult for Hernandez to get a fair trial in New York.
Patz was walking alone to the school bus stop for the first time when he vanished on May 25, 1979.
His disappearance has long haunted parents across the country. His picture was one of the first to appear on milk cartons in an effort to locate missing children.
"We are very frustrated and disheartened still," said fellow former juror Jennifer O'Connor, who was among the 11 jurors who voted to convict Hernandez. "We're here supporting the new DA and his team."
Opening statements from the defense, which maintains Hernandez is mentally ill and his 2012 confession to police was coerced, and the prosecution, which maintains he is a cunning criminal and his statements were voluntary, will begin in 2016, the judge said.
Hernandez, 54, confessed to strangling the boy in the basement of the deli where he worked in New York's Soho neighborhood. He said he put the boy's still-moving body in a box and left it in a nearby alley.
Despite a massive search, Patz was never found. He was declared legally dead in 2001.
His father Stan Patz has said the family was "frustrated and very disappointed" by the jury's inability to reach a verdict.
Hernandez was questioned in 2012 after investigators received a tip from his brother-in-law, who said Hernandez allegedly confessed the crime to a church prayer group in the 1980s.
The lead prosecutor for the next trial will be assistant district attorney Joel Seidemann, who replaces Joan Illuzzi-Orbon as she steps down to run as a Republican for Staten Island district attorney.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Sandra Maler)