Ten media organizations are seeking to legally challenge the family of Jacob Wetterling over its attempt to keep private some investigative documents related to the 11-year-old’s 1989 abduction and murder.
The Minnesota Newspaper Association, Minnesota Broadcasters Association and the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information are among parties challenging a lawsuit filed earlier this month by Jacob’s parents, Patty and Jerry Wetterling, to prevent the release of sensitive investigative documents that include personal information about their family.
The organizations are trying to intervene in the case because of concerns about the broader impact a judge’s potential ruling could have on state privacy laws. Interventions allow outside parties into a lawsuit to protect their interests.
For nearly three decades, the kidnapping of Jacob at gunpoint in October 1989 was one of Minnesota’s most vexing and haunting crimes. The case went unsolved until last fall, when Danny Heinrich, now 53, confessed to killing the boy hours after abducting him as Jacob, his brother and best friend returned from a convenience store not far from the Wetterling home in St. Joseph, Minn.
Some 10,000 investigative documents containing 56,000 pages of material have been compiled over the years by Stearns County authorities and were scheduled to be released to the public June 5. At that time, Sheriff Don Gudmundson said in a written statement, “The struggle here is balancing our need to protect the privacy of victims and state law that requires the release of a closed investigative file. … I believe the law requires the release of the file.”
After the Wetterlings filed their lawsuit hoping to prevent the release of some documents, Stearns County Judge Ann Carrott issued a temporary restraining order blocking their release pending resolution of the privacy concerns.
Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall has indicated that her office won’t fight the Wetterlings’ request in court.
Media lawyer Mark Anfinson said his clients believed it was important for someone to step in and make the case for public release of the files. He said the media groups aren’t saying certain documents can’t be kept private but argued that they shouldn’t be withheld on the grounds of a constitutional right to privacy.
Giving law enforcement constitutional cover to withhold investigative documents “would have a massive impact on government accountability in Minnesota,” he said. “Much of the ability to assess how law enforcement works hinges on being able to look at the investigative file after a case is closed.”
Anfinson cited the recent example of video released after former St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted in the 2016 shooting of Philando Castile. Squad car video showed Yanez firing into the car multiple times, mortally wounding Castile.
The Wetterlings aren’t seeking to block release of the entire file, just specific documents pertaining to their family. Their complaint noted that during the investigation into Jacob’s abduction, law enforcement personnel were in the Wetterling home “providing security or other services. As a result of those contacts and other reports, interviews and communications to law enforcement, highly personal details about the [Wetterlings] and their minor children and the inner workings of the Wetterling family were recorded in notes and documents that became part” of the investigative file in the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office.
Doug Kelley, an attorney for the Wetterlings, has until Friday to identify which documents the family wants withheld, an action that will be done under seal. He said the documents he seeks to shield represent very little of the overall case file and contain information that is “intensely personal.”
The Wetterlings generally believe investigative files should be made public after a case is finished, but the documents at issue don’t belong in a police file, nor do they mention Heinrich or shed any light on law enforcement performance, Kelley said.
In addition to the three previously mentioned organizations, the groups filing to intervene are: Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law, Society of Professional Journalists-Minnesota chapter, KSTP-TV, WDIO-TV, KAAL-TV, Minnesota Public Radio and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
The Star Tribune is not part of the group trying to intervene.
“We believe the Data Practices Act is very clear that files of concluded criminal proceedings such as these are considered public documents,” said Randy Lebedoff, general counsel for the Star Tribune. “As members of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, we and other news organizations across the state are well represented in this understandably sensitive case. We will continue to assess our options as we await more detailed filings about the Wetterling family’s request later this month.”