ST. CLOUD – Allowing some 200 pages from the Jacob Wetterling investigative file to be shielded from public view would be an “extraordinary” extension of constitutional privacy rights, a lawyer for media and open government groups said in a Stearns County courtroom Friday.
In the first public hearing on access to the county’s investigative file in the 1989 abduction case, lawyer Mark Anfinson argued that the entire county file be open and that District Judge Ann Carrott allow media groups to “intervene” in a lawsuit filed by the Wetterling family to keep some documents private.
If the judge agrees, Anfinson plans to argue that barring the release of some documents would strain the state Constitution’s privacy rights.
That’s the core concern of the groups Anfinson represents, led by the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information.
“Our principal concern is the court recognizing a privacy right that overrides the Data Practices Act,” Anfinson said, referring to the laws that provide public access to government data.
Jerry and Patty Wetterling, Jacob’s parents, filed a lawsuit in June to stop the release of portions of the Stearns County investigative file that was opened when their son was kidnapped. The case and the file were closed last year when Jacob’s killer confessed to abducting and shooting the boy and burying his remains in a pasture near Paynesville, Minn.
Attorney Doug Kelley, who represents the Wetterlings, has argued that about 200 pages of the file are intensely private and personal, that they are unrelated to the investigation and that they should not be released.
Although the point in question Friday was whether Carrott should allow the media to intervene and make its case in the lawsuit, the discussion waded into the legal merits and methodology for the underlying issue of the family’s privacy.
Adam Ballinger, co-counsel with Kelley, wants Carrott to first review the 200-some documents in question. He argued that the judge should hold off on whether to allow intervention in the case until after she decides whether the documents are private. He also argued that Carrott could determine whether the documents are private without making a far-reaching ruling.
But Anfinson said privacy rights by both state and federal courts have been extended narrowly to reproductive rights.
The Wetterlings weren’t in the courtroom for the hearing, which lasted about 45 minutes. Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall sat at a table with Anfinson. County Sheriff Don Gudmundson sat in the second row. Kendall and Gudmundson already have determined the entire file is public.
As crime victims, the Wetterlings were allowed to review the documents before public release.
Jacob’s unsolved abduction haunted Minnesotans for 27 years. He was abducted at gunpoint in October 1989 while biking home with his brother and a friend after picking up a “Naked Gun” video from a convenience store in St. Joseph, Minn.
A central question in the case is why it took so long to solve, especially since the killer was someone investigators questioned within six weeks of the abduction. Late last summer, Danny Heinrich, who lived about a half-hour away from St. Joseph at the time of Jacob’s disappearance, confessed to kidnapping and killing the boy and led investigators to his remains. That closed the criminal investigation, allowing for the public release of the Stearns County file.
It’s unclear when the issues addressed Friday will be resolved or when even some of the documents will be released.
Carrott gave Kelley and Ballinger until Aug. 25 to file additional briefs. Anfinson said he would file a response within five days — if he files one at all.
In addition to the Coalition on Government Information, Anfinson’s group includes the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law; the Minnesota chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists; and the state newspaper and broadcasters associations, along with KSTP-TV, WDIO-TV, KAAL-TV, Minnesota Public Radio and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
The Star Tribune, a member of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, did not join the effort separately.