Media groups argue for release of Wetterling files that family deems private
ST. CLOUD-- Several Minnesota media organizations have asked to be allowed to intervene in a court case involving the release of documents from the investigation of Jacob Wetterling's abduction and murder.
The media groups argue that a judge in Stearns County should not rule that a constitutional privacy right can be used to override the guarantees of public access found in the Minnesota Data Practices Act, which requires most government records to be made public.
The complaint in intervention, filed Tuesday in Stearns County District Court, comes three weeks after a judge blocked the scheduled release of more than 50,000 pages of documents related to the case.
Patty and Jerry Wetterling on June 2 sued for a temporary restraining order to keep part of the investigative file private, at least until a judge could review documents that they say hold personal information about their marriage and family.
Tuesday's request for intervention was filed by the Minnesota Newspaper Association, the Minnesota Broadcasters Association, the Silha Center for Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information and other media organizations.
Now that the criminal investigation into the Wetterling case is closed, the investigative file should be made public under the Data Practices Act, said Don Gemberling, a spokesman for the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information.
Jacob was kidnapped in 1989 by Danny Heinrich, who confessed last year to sexually assaulting and killing the St. Joseph boy; Heinrich was sentenced to 20 years in prison on a child pornography charge as part of a plea agreement.
The Data Practices Act "has been the law since 1981," Gemberling said. "A whole lot of information has made available to the public, which is helpful in understanding how investigations by law enforcement agencies are done, and whether or not sometimes they are screwed up."
Gemberling said last week's release of the video of the shooting of Philando Castille by former St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez is "one of the best recent examples" of the law in action.
"If we somehow stick limitations on those kinds of releases of information, then we start chipping away at government accountability and understanding how things work, and whether or not people are really doing their jobs," Gemberling said.
The groups were prompted to intervene in the case after Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall made it clear in court filings that she has no intention of fighting the Wetterlings on the matter, said Mark Anfinson, the attorney representing the media groups.
"Given the position of the Stearns County attorney's office, if we did not intervene, there would be no one in the courtroom challenging what the Wetterlings are requesting," Anfinson said.
In a statement issued Tuesday, the Wetterlings attorney, Doug Kelley, wrote that the Wetterlings "firmly believe in transparency in government and recognize that law enforcement files should generally be made public once a criminal investigation ends."
"Our lawsuit seeks to preserve the Wetterlings' constitutionally protected privacy interests," he wrote. "A very small part of the law enforcement file contains things which do not belong in a police file and misinformation of a character I've never before seen in 42 years of practicing criminal law."
Kelley wrote that the Wetterlings have asked a judge to review a small set of documents — "less than three one-thousandths of 1 percent" — that is "intensely personal and protected from disclosure by the state and federal constitutions and the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act."
"None of the documents in issue mention Danny Heinrich or shed any light on the performance of law enforcement investigating Jacob's disappearance," he wrote.
While sympathetic to the Wetterlings and their decades-long ordeal, Gemberling said people "have to step back from that kind of thing, and say 'What is the principle here?'"
"What's going to happen is the police will just say, 'Well, we think this might be an invasion of privacy,' and nothing will be released," Gemberling said. "That's what used to happen years ago. The fact that this is the Wetterling family is difficult because we feel sympathy for them, but somebody has got to say, 'Wait a minute. What's the principle here?'"
Added Anfinson: "Once you recognize that the existence of a constitutional right of privacy can be used to override the Data Practices Act, you'll have an endless parade of celebrities, prominent officials and people who can afford attorneys threatening government agencies with lawsuits if they release records about them, even though classified as public under the Data Practices Act. That threat alone will have a paralyzing effect on public access."