By Natasja Sheriff

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Prosecutors in the trial of a former deli worker accused of murdering a New York boy said on Tuesday that the child's 1979 disappearance, which launched a movement to find missing children, marked "a loss of innocence" for the city and nation.

Pedro Hernandez, 54, is charged with kidnapping and murdering 6-year-old Etan Patz, who vanished as he walked alone for the first time to a school bus stop in his Manhattan neighborhood.

His disappearance focused attention on the plight of missing children, and his picture was one of the first to appear on milk cartons.

Hernandez confessed to police in 2012 that he choked the boy, stuffed him in a box and left him in a New York alley.

Defense attorneys say the confession was coerced, and that Hernandez, arrested on a tip that he had confessed to a church prayer group, is mentally ill, intellectually disabled and suffers hallucinations.

Summing up the case in state Supreme Court in Manhattan, Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon reminded the jury of the impact the boy's disappearance had made.

"He represents a moment in this city and this country where there was a loss of innocence, trust, a way of life," she said.

"Etan, by his death, saved many, many children from a similar fate," she added.

The crime long haunted New Yorkers who can recall the massive search for the missing blond boy, who was never found. He was declared dead in 2001.

The prosecutor dismissed the argument that Hernandez' confession was coerced, saying he had confessed to the church group, an old friend and his ex-wife without police present to pressure him.

"He's confessed before, during and after he ever met the police in this case," she said.

The jury, which started hearing testimony in January, was expected to begin deliberations following summations.

The defense summed up on Monday, arguing that Hernandez' confession was unreliable and improbable and that prosecutors failed to present evidence of his guilt. No forensic evidence was presented at trial.

In his confession to police, Hernandez described luring Patz into the deli where he worked, taking him to the basement and strangling him.

Defense attorneys put blame on Jose Ramos, who dated a Patz family babysitter and was long considered the prime suspect. Ramos is serving a prison term for sexually abusing boys.

If convicted, Hernandez faces the possibility of life in prison.

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Doina Chiacu)