Judge hears arguments in legal fight over Wetterling investigative file

Patty and Jerry Wetterling after the hearing.
Patty and Jerry Wetterling, right, sit with their family during the press conference announcing Danny Heinrich's confession to their son Jacob's murder on Sept. 6, 2016 in Minneapolis.
Courtney Perry for MPR News 2016

The massive file covering the 27-year investigation into the 1989 disappearance of Jacob Wetterling was the center of a courtroom debate on Friday.

Patty and Jerry Wetterling, Jacob's parents, have sued to stop the release of about 168 pages in the file, which they say contain personal information about their marriage and family.

Stearns County had planned to publicly release the file last year now that the investigation is closed. Danny Heinrich confessed to abducting and murdering 11-year-old Jacob and is serving a 20-year prison sentence on a child porn charge as part of a plea agreement.

Further complicating the matter, the U.S. Department of Justice intervened, arguing that some of the case file belongs to the FBI and should be returned.

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Several media organizations, including Minnesota Public Radio, also joined the lawsuit to argue that the file is public under the Minnesota Data Practices Act.

Attorneys for all three sides were in an Alexandria courtroom Friday before District Judge Ann Carrott.

Attorney Mark Anfinson, representing the media, said agreeing to keep the records confidential would create a constitutional right to privacy of information, which he said currently doesn't exist in Minnesota law.

Anfinson said much of the data held by government, especially law enforcement, is sensitive or potentially embarrassing. Creating a right to privacy would hurt public access to records, he said, which is critical for holding government institutions accountable.

The Wetterlings' attorney, Steve Wolter, said the documents the couple wants to keep private are only a "tiny sliver" of the entire file. He said they include intensely personal information, have nothing to do with Heinrich and won't help promote government accountability.

Wolter said the U.S. Constitution and other states do recognize privacy protections to crime victims.

The Department of Justice says its records were simply on loan to Stearns County, with a clear disclaimer that they are property of the federal government and should be returned.

Attorney Ana Voss argued that the media can go through the federal Freedom of Information Act to request the records, so they haven't been injured and don't have legal standing in the case.

But Anfinson called FOIA a "dysfunctional" law, and said the media is unlikely to ever get access to the records if they're returned to the FBI.

"You're talking 20 percent or more of the entire investigative file basically being removed from the public, and that will impact people's ability to understand what happened," Anfinson said after the hearing. "This is too important of a case for that to happen."

The Wetterlings attended the hearing. Afterward, Patty Wetterling said she understands the media's desire to see the case file. But she said some of the information collected in the early days of the investigation wasn't relevant to the case.

"There's no greater good for having that be put out there — everybody's opinion, everybody's thoughts," she said. "It all came out of a place of fear in the beginning, so nobody trusted anybody, and people turned in information that was very personal and private. And I don't think anybody expected that was all going to become public."

Wetterling said she hopes there can be some compromise reached, perhaps in the Legislature, that protects both crime victims' privacy and public access.

"The case will be released we know that and I would hope for maximum transparency and minimum harm to victims, both in our family and down the road," she said. "So if we need to make some changes down the road, we'll figure that out."

The judge did not make a decision Friday. Another hearing is scheduled for early April.