The Jacob Wetterling abduction

Wetterling attorney: Data practices law should include 'safety valve' for victims

Attorney Doug Kelley
Attorney Doug Kelley speaks to members of the news media on behalf of Patty and Jerry Wetterling in 2016. Kelley said state law should include a "safety valve" for privacy of victims.
Tim Nelson | MPR News 2016

An attorney for the family of Jacob Wetterling said Friday they will seek a change in Minnesota law to protect victims' families from the release of personal information in their cases.

Doug Kelley, an attorney for Patty and Jerry Wetterling, said state law should include what he calls a "safety valve" for privacy similar to the federal Freedom of Information Act.

"It allows a judge or somebody to look at some documents and just say, 'Those are so private. They do not need to be released,'" he said. "When the Minnesota Data Practices Act was passed, it was a model throughout the nation. But what it hasn't done is kept up with victims' rights."

The state Data Practices Act governs access to public records in Minnesota, and is similar in many ways to the federal FOIA.

Jacob was 11 when he was abducted in rural St. Joseph, Minn., in the fall of 1989. The crime sent shock waves throughout the community and set off a massive search effort that generated tips and leads from around the world. And for 27 years, the case remained unsolved.

In 2016, Danny Heinrich confessed to abducting, sexually assaulting and killing Jacob. Under Minnesota law, criminal investigations become public once the case has been closed.

Jacob's parents sued to stop Stearns County from releasing 168 pages out of the tens of thousands of pages in the file, saying they contained personal information about their marriage and family.

In April, a judge ruled that the documents must be released under the Minnesota Data Practices Act. Last month, thousands of documents were released to the public.

"We're going to ask the Legislature to put a safety valve in there and bring Minnesota's law up to speed and make it more modern in recognizing victims' rights," Kelley said.