Sometime soon, a Stearns County judge will review about 168 pages that Patty and Jerry Wetterling have asked to keep out of the public eye.
The Stearns County sheriff was set to release on June 5 the entire 56,000 pages of its closed investigation into the 1989 abduction of the Wetterlings’ son, Jacob. The attorney for the Wetterlings, Doug Kelley, persuaded a judge to stop that from happening to prevent the release of a small number of those records that involve details of “the inner workings” of the Wetterling family, according to a court filing.
They argue those records should remain private due to privacy protections in the U.S. and Minnesota constitutions. When Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall declined to push for the release of the documents, a number of media and open government advocacy organizations intervened rather than abandon Minnesota’s public records law.
It is a conflict no one wants. And it’s not about any zeal to sift through and publish highly personal records.
The Star Tribune has not joined the group opposing the Wetterlings’ request, although my company is a member of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, which has. So has the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, on whose board I sit.
While the legal arguments will get sorted out in a St. Cloud courtroom, some of us fear that no matter the outcome, this case could mark the end of Minnesota’s laudable openness about how its law officers investigate crime.
Since 1981, state law has required police to open up criminal investigative files once the cases are resolved. It’s a powerful tool to understand how this branch of government operates. And it dispels the many conspiracy theories that fill the vacuum when governments keep secrets.
For all the anguished responses after the release of videos and interview transcripts associated with the police-involved deaths of Philando Castile and Jamar Clark, imagine if law enforcement was allowed to withhold that evidence forever.
It is not hard for me. In North Carolina, where I worked as a journalist before moving to Minnesota, investigative files are permanently off-limits to the public, aside from what emerges in court. Law enforcement accountability, then, is that much harder to ensure.
That doesn’t mean police in Minnesota hand over everything in their closed files.
Minnesota law allows the withholding of medical information, information about child abuse, and the identities of people who are vulnerable adults or victims of sexual assault, child abuse or other crime victims who show they could be at risk.
They can also withhold any photos or videos that are “clearly offensive to common sensibilities.”
For the most part, this system has worked well. But no investigative file is really comparable to the Wetterling case, which attracted 80,000 tips in the 27 years it remained unsolved.
“This file is absolutely unique in Minnesota history,” Kelley said.
Despite that, Kelley said Friday he believes the state’s public records law needs to be “revamped” with an eye toward respecting privacy.
That sounds perfectly reasonable. Through their surveillance and seizure powers, police have enormous access to people’s private lives.
Yet the potential exists for government to misuse it to keep the public in the dark.
In a statement last week, Kelley said the Wetterlings support transparency and the release of criminal files at the close of investigations. It would be a shame to jeopardize 36 years of tradition for 168 pages.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org. or 612-673-4116.