by Mike Knaak
A district court judge’s ruling on April 19 that investigative records in the Jacob Wetterling case must be made public still does not end the dispute.
No date for the release will be set until the 60-day appeal period passes or until parties indicate they don’t plan to appeal, according to Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall.
An earlier court ruling directed Stearns County to return thousands of pages of FBI documents to that agency. The county attorney’s office is working to comply with that order as well, Kendall said in a statement.
Patty and Jerry Wetterling, parents of Jacob who was kidnapped in 1989, sued to block release of 168 pages of the 56,373-page file that was compiled by law enforcement.
The three-decade investigation ended in September 2016 when Danny Heinrich confessed to Jacob’s kidnapping and murder.
Once an investigation ends, the records are public as required by the Minnesota Data Practices Act. The Wetterlings reviewed the file and requested Stearns County block information they described as personal and private.
A coalition of media organizations sued to open all the records.
The FBI records are estimated to cover between 25 and 50 percent of the entire case file and cover most of the pages the Wetterlings sought to keep private. Access to the FBI records can be requested through the federal Freedom of Information Act.
In her written ruling, Judge Ann Carrott stated: “The (Wetterling) family tragedy had a profound effect on the people of Minnesota. In many ways, Jacob Wetterling’s kidnapping on a dirt road in a small rural town in Minnesota made us all feel less safe. While the court has great personal empathy for the Wetterlings, the court must impartially apply the law, unswayed by emotion. To do otherwise would result in an unfair application of the law.”
In a statement made after the ruling, the Wetterlings said they were thankful for Carrott’s “careful consideration of our concerns.”
The Wetterlings added their lawsuit was never about preventing the media from seeing the case file. It was about preventing victims and their families from further harm.
From the beginning, we have witnessed firsthand the integrity and accuracy of the Minnesota news media,” the Wetterlings said. “They have set the bar very high, and have always treated our family with respect and dignity. We trust this high level of reporting will continue. Our hope is that beyond the media, whoever reads the file will also have a discerning eye and will treat information respectfully.”
The Wetterlings’ effort to keep some of the records private found a sympathetic supporter at the state Capitol. Earlier this year, Sen. Richard Cohen, a St. Paul DFLer, introduced legislation to restrict access.
Under his bill, people involved in criminal investigations could request information about them be kept private if it’s irrelevant to the preparation or prosecution of the case. Law enforcement would determine the relevance and weigh that request against the value of public disclosure.
The bill has been referred to the Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy committees. A companion bill introduced by Rep. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, in the house has been referred to the Civil Law and Data Practices Policy Committee.