Nearly three years after Aaron Foster Sr. was acquitted of murder in the 1981 death of his girlfriend, he is going back to court to ask that the record of his criminal charge be sealed. Relatives of the victim, Barbara Winn, are also turning to the court in their unrelenting effort to prove that Foster caused Winn's death.

On Tuesday, the family filed a wrongful-death suit in Ramsey County District Court against Foster. Winn's children said they filed the suit partly because of Foster's request to have his record expunged.

A hearing on the expungement is scheduled for Wednesday morning before Chief District Judge Kathleen Gearin. If Gearin grants his request, court records on Foster's murder charge, as well as records held by state and local law enforcement agencies, would be sealed.

"He wants to just wipe it clean and act like it never happened," said Patty Bruce, Winn's sister-in-law. "It did happen. We're fairly certain that in a civil suit, he will be held accountable."

Winn was 35 when she died on May 8, 1981, from a gunshot wound to the chest. Foster had been with her at her Maplewood townhouse and the two had quarreled before she was killed by a bullet from Foster's gun. Her three children, who were 15, 13, and 12 at the time, were in the home when their mother died and have insisted that Foster killed her. Foster wasn't charged until 2007, when a grand jury indicted him on third-degree murder charges. His attorney argued that Winn shot herself and a jury found Foster not guilty in July 2008.

The case had been reopened during a contentious election for Ramsey County sheriff between Bob Fletcher and former St. Paul Police Chief Bill Finney. Finney, a longtime friend of Foster, who also incurred the wrath of Winn's family, testified at the trial about a previous incident of abuse he witnessed between Winn and Foster but did not report.

Foster declined to comment when reached by phone Tuesday.

The expungement petition said that Foster, 58, "presents absolutely no danger to the community." Foster's petition also seeks to seal the record of a 2006 charge for failing to change the address on a firearm permit, which was also dismissed.

"Various prospective employers have held this charge against Mr. Foster even though it was resolved in his favor and he was found not guilty," the petition said.

Because Foster was acquitted in the murder case, state law says "the court shall grant the petition to seal the record" unless the state agency that has the records can prove "by clear and convincing evidence that the interest of the public and public safety outweigh the disadvantages to the petitioner of not sealing the record."

Both the Ramsey County attorney's office and the state Department of Human Services submitted statements arguing that the records should remain available to the public. An attorney for DHS submitted a letter to the court saying that the department needs to have access to the criminal record in case Foster ever seeks a job that would require him to work with vulnerable people. If Foster's record were expunged, it "would leave our most defenseless citizens vulnerable to maltreatment," the letter said. "In this case, the public safety interest is heightened because of the serious nature of the alleged offense."

The department licenses foster care and child care programs, as well as services for people with developmental disabilities, and has a lower threshold than a criminal conviction for denying someone a license.

State law requires DHS to bar a person from certain jobs if there is a preponderance of evidence that an applicant committed third-degree murder, the letter said.

The county attorney's office argued in court records that Foster demonstrated "a severe disregard for public safety" when he threw the gun used in Winn's death out of a car in 1981. Foster also hasn't shown that he has been harmed by his record remaining public, the office wrote.

Earl Gray, Foster's attorney, wrote in a letter to Gearin that the state hasn't raised any incidents that have happened in the past 30 years since Winn's death. He also submitted a list of 11 businesses where Foster was turned down for jobs, mostly for security positions, in the past two years.

Foster worked in the St. Paul Police Department property room until he was arrested and charged in November 2007.

Mark Haase, vice president of the Council on Crime and Justice, said Foster's case is unique compared with most expungements because he was acquitted.

That makes it more likely that he could get records held by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and other state and local law enforcement agencies expunged, Haase said. Most people who file for an expungement have been convicted, Haase said, which means that they are only likely to get court records sealed.

"When an employer or a landlord sees [a record], there's sort of guilt-by-record regardless of whether there was a conviction," Haase said.

Bruce said she doesn't oppose expungements in all situations, but she thinks Foster's history of violence should count against him. Winn's family members, including her children Tammi, Randy and Tyrone Winn, said they have talked about filing a wrongful-death suit for years.

"Legally, he got away with murder, but now he thinks he shouldn't have to live with the consequences of the choices he's made in his life," Bruce said. "She has a beautiful legacy, a legacy of hope, and that's why we don't give up."

Lora Pabst • 612-916-7212