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Minnesota judge says Wetterling files are public; family of abducted boy will seek to change privacy laws

Patty and Jerry Wetterling accept applause from a Friday, Jan. 27, 2017, Minnesota Newspaper Association audience. They recounted the final dayts before authorities solved the disappearance of their son, Jacob. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 2
Judge Ann Carrott2 / 2

ALEXANDRIA, Minn.—A Minnesota judge ruled Thursday, April 19, that all the documents in the investigative file in the Jacob Wetterling case must be released to the public.

Patty and Jerry Wetterling, the parents of Jacob Wetterling, who was abducted near the family's St. Joseph home in 1989, filed suit to prevent the release of 168 pages within the 56,373 page file that was compiled by law enforcement during the three-decade long investigation.

The investigation ended in September 2016 when Danny Heinrich confessed to Jacob Wetterling's kidnapping and murder, which would have triggered making the investigative file public information.

The Wetterlings, however, reviewed the file and requested Stearns County to redact information regarding their marriage and family life, which they described as personal and private information.

A coalition of media outlets and public interest groups intervened, saying that the documents are public government data and the Wetterlings did not have a constitutional right of privacy.

Douglas County District Judge Ann Carrott ordered the file remained sealed until the privacy question was resolved.

During a Feb. 2 hearing in Alexandria, Mark Anfinson, an attorney representing the Minnesota Newspaper Association, told Carrot that the Minnesota's Data Practices Act requires all files to be public once an investigation is complete.

Anfinson said that no court has ruled that a right to privacy prohibits the disclosure of public records. He said that if privacy concerns are used to trump the Data Practices Act, it would effectively dismantle the act.

"Whenever someone thought that information was too private, too sensitive to disclose, information could be withheld," Anfinson said.

Carrott ruled in favor of the media coalition, giving it summary judgment, meaning there are no issue of material facts to go forward to a trial.

Carrott said the Wetterlings do not have a legal claim of informational privacy.

In her written copy of the ruling, Carrott noted, "The (Wetterling) family tragedy had a profound effect on the people of Minnesota. In many ways, Jacob Wetterling's kidnapping on a dirt road in a small rural town in Minnesota made us all feel less safe. While the court has great personal empathy for the Wetterlings, the court must impartially apply the law, unswayed by emotion. To do otherwise would result in an unfair application of the law."

In a statement released after the ruling, the Wetterlings said that although they were saddened to hear the ruling, they were thankful for Carrott's "careful consideration of our concerns."

The Wetterlings added that their lawsuit was never about preventing the media from seeing the case file. It was about preventing victims and their families from further harm.

"From the beginning, we have witnessed firsthand the integrity and accuracy of the Minnesota news media," the Wetterlings said. "They have set the bar very high, and have always treated our family with respect and dignity. We trust that this high level of reporting will continue. Our hope is that beyond the media, whoever reads the file will also have a discerning eye and will treat information respectfully."

The Wetterlings thanked all those involved in the 27-year effort to find their son and to identify the man who abducted him.

They said they will work to change the Minnesota Data Practices Act to help protect future victims of crime.

Anfinson called Carrott's ruling a thoughtful, careful decision, which is "all you can ask for from a judge," he said in a phone interview with the Echo Press.

"Of course I'm gratified with the decision," he said, "but what is more gratifying is how she approached this important issue."

Last month, Carrott ruled that thousands of pages of documents the FBI shared with the Stearns County Sheriff's Office as part of the investigation be returned to the FBI.

The FBI documents cover the majority of the pages that the Wetterlings were trying to keep sealed. FBI documents can be accessed through the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Al Edenloff
Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  
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