Government watchdog and media coalitions will be able to make their case for access to the investigative file into the 1989 abduction and murder of Jacob Wetterling, a judge ruled Friday.
In allowing the watchdog and media groups to join the Stearns County District Court lawsuit, Judge Ann Carrott's written ruling cited the Wetterling family's legally groundbreaking request to put their right to privacy above state laws that require the opening of investigative files.
Through their attorney Doug Kelley, the Wetterlings have said that fewer than 200 of the thousands of pages of investigative documents involve highly personal information and shouldn't be released. The media groups, represented by Mark Anfinson, say granting the family's request would have the consequence of restricting access to government data well beyond this case.
"Now that we're parties here, we're in the ring," Anfinson said. "We're not in the peanut gallery anymore. It makes a big difference."
Both lawyers saw a degree of victory in Friday's ruling. But the fight over the documents and privacy law has a long way to go before it's settled and the file is opened.
Jerry and Patty Wetterling, Jacob's parents, sued in June to stop the release of portions of the Stearns County investigative file opened when their son was kidnapped. The yearslong investigation ended and the case was closed last year when Danny Heinrich confessed to abducting and shooting the 11-year-old boy and burying his remains in a pasture near Paynesville, Minn.
Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall and Sheriff Don Gudmundson had determined that all of the documents were public and prepared to release them in early June. Then the Wetterlings filed a last-minute lawsuit, and the judge put a hold on releasing the documents pending an airing of the case.
Kelley said the Wetterlings were pleased with the aspect of Friday's ruling that said the files created by the FBI weren't subject to state laws, meaning if Anfinson's groups want them, they'll have to take that up with the feds.
"They believe that many of these items should never have been in a law enforcement file in the first place," Kelley said.
But Anfinson isn't conceding that point. He said he was perplexed as to why the ruling addressed the federal documents.
The next hearing on the matter is set for Oct. 9 in Stearns County, and Anfinson is likely to raise that issue.
Kelley hasn't revealed what the contested documents contain, except to say that it's intensely private information gleaned by investigators who were at the Wetterlings' home around the clock in the days after the abduction. As crime victims, the Wetterlings were allowed to review the documents before public release.
The coalition Anfinson represents is led by the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information and 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.
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747 Twitter: @rochelleolson