Wetterlings file legal motion to keep media out of privacy fight over investigative files

The parents of Jacob Wetterling want to keep the media out of a privacy fight involving portions of the investigative file into the 11-year-old’s 1989 abduction and murder, according to a legal motion filed late Thursday.

The motion, filed in Stearns County District Court by Doug Kelley, the attorney for the Wetterling family, is in response to a legal challenge by several news outlets and open government organizations to intervene in a lawsuit filed last month by Patty and Jerry Wetterling. The couple want to keep private parts of the voluminous investigative file, saying some documents deal with personal family matters irrelevant to the investigation.

Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall determined this spring that the county’s entire investigative file was public and was set to release the documents in early June until the Wetterlings filed a lawsuit to stop her. Media-related organizations want to make the case in court in favor of full disclosure.

But in a four-page document filed this week by Kelley, the Wetterlings say the media should stay out of the dispute involving a small portion of the case file.

Jacob was abducted at gunpoint from while biking home with his brother and a friend after picking up a video from a convenience store in St. Joseph, Minn. in October 1989. Investigators grasped for years to figure out what had happened to the boy who vanished into the night. The case has long been one of the state’s most notorious crimes and the Wetterlings became household names both for their efforts to find Jacob and to help other abused children.

Barely one year ago, Danny Heinrich, who lived about a half-hour away from St. Joseph at the time of the abduction, confessed to kidnapping and killing Jacob, finally leading investigators to his body. That closed the criminal investigation, leading to the public release of the Stearns County case file.

As crime victims, the Wetterlings first were allowed to review the documents. Through Kelley, they now are requesting that District Judge Ann Carrott review contested portions of the file before making a decision on whether to release the documents and whether to allow the media to have a say.

Kelley is expected to let the court know by Monday which documents the family wants to shield. That information won’t be public. Some 10,000 documents containing 56,000 pages are in the file. Kelley has said he expects to seek to keep a small portion private — maybe a few hundred pages.

But Mark Anfinson, lawyer for the media coalition, said he will ask Carrott for a hearing on the coalition’s motion to intervene before she starts reviewing contested documents. Interventions allow outside parties into a lawsuit to protect their interests.

The media organizations are concerned about the broader impact a ruling could have on state privacy laws.

The coalition Anfinson represents includes the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law, Society of Professional Journalists — Minnesota Chapter, the state newspaper and broadcasters association along with KSTP-TV, WDIO-TV, KAAL-TV, Minnesota Public Radio and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

The Star Tribune did not join the effort.

 

Twitter: @rochelleolson

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