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Judge rules state Wetterling documents must be released

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A memorial  left near the farm in Paynesville.
A lone balloon blows in the wind attached to flowers, a memorial left near the farm in Paynesville, Minn., where Jacob Wetterling's remains were found.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News File

Updated 1:20 p.m. | Posted 11:25 a.m.

A Stearns County judge has ruled that state investigative documents in the Jacob Wetterling case must be released.

The ruling applies to some documents Jacob's parents, Patty and Jerry Wetterling, had sought to keep confidential because they contain personal information. Media organizations including MPR News had sought release of the documents  under the state Data Practices Act. The law specifies that once a criminal investigation is closed, it becomes public data.

In her ruling issued Thursday, District Judge Ann Carrott sided with the media groups, saying that although she has "great personal empathy" for the Wetterlings, the court must impartially apply the law.

The ruling only applies to non-federal documents in the case. Last month, the court ruled that portions of the file must be returned to the FBI and released under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

That left about six documents, a total of 89 pages in dispute. The Wetterlings identified about 29 of those they believed contained information that is protected by their right to privacy.

In a statement, the Wetterlings said their lawsuit was never about preventing the media from seeing the case file but about protecting "victims and their families from further harm."

The documents to be released hold "many tips, interviews, rumors and speculations that had no bearing on the investigation," the family said. "There are many people who will be hurt by the release of very private information that was provided in a sincere effort to help find Jacob."

The Wetterlings apologized to those people, saying they would now be victims. "There have been so many victims involved in Jacob's abduction. It is heartbreaking."

Stearns County had planned to release the entire investigative file after Danny Heinrich confessed to kidnapping and killing Jacob in 1989. His remains were found on a rural Paynesville, Minn., farm.

Heinrich is serving a 20-year prison sentence for a child porn charge as part of a plea agreement.

Stearns County says it is waiting to see if either side appeals before it sets a date to release the documents. 

Mark Anfinson, the attorney representing the media organizations, said they did not intervene in the lawsuit to obtain the disputed documents, which he said make up a very small portion of the file.

He said it was an effort to convince the court that there is no constitutional privacy right that overrides Minnesota public records law.

"We were very concerned that if such a right were recognized, it would essentially demolish the strong presumption in Minnesota that government records are public and accessible to anyone," Anfinson said. "So at least initially, we've achieved that goal."

Anfinson said the media want access to the file because it's the only way to get a better understanding of what happened with the investigation and why it took so long to solve the case.

"There are many, many uncertainties and questions surrounding that case, as everyone in Minnesota knows," he said. "By reviewing the file, some of those questions may be answered."