Media groups argue to join lawsuit over Wetterling file

Published 9:28 pm Friday, August 11, 2017

By Kirsti Marohn, Minnesota Public Radio News

Several media organizations argued in Stearns County District Court on Friday that they should be allowed to join a legal dispute over whether information from the Jacob Wetterling investigation should be released publicly.

Jerry and Patty Wetterling sued Stearns County to block the release of about 200 pages out of thousands of documents in the 26-year investigation into their son’s 1989 disappearance.

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Stearns County had planned to release the entire investigation now that the case is closed. Danny Heinrich confessed last year to kidnapping, sexually assaulting and killing Jacob Wetterling in October 1989. Heinrich is serving a 20-year prison sentence as part of a plea agreement.

The Wetterlings said the file contains personal information about their marriage and family. The Stearns County attorney’s office has said it believes the information is public under the state data practices act.

Several media groups — including MPR News, the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, the state chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law — are asking to intervene.

Their attorney, Mark Anfinson, argued that the case has major implications for public access to information. Anfinson said it would be “opening a Pandora’s box” to create a constitutional right to privacy, which would allow an “ad hoc override” of the state law that protects public access.

The Wetterlings’ attorney, Adam Ballinger, said the judge can decide whether to release the documents based on existing exemptions in the law.

Judge Ann Carrott allowed 10 days for responses from both sides before making a decision.