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OUR TURN: Meeting the Wetterlings in court

Patty and Jerry Wetterling smile during a light-hearted moment during the community memorial service for Jacob Wetterling at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University in St. Joseph, Minn., Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)

I didn't know what to expect when I covered a Feb. 2 hearing at the Douglas County Courthouse involving the Jacob Wetterling family. They are trying to prevent some information in an investigative file from being released to the public.

It's a complex and compelling issue — one that will have big implications in the future about privacy rights and public information. It's an important enough case that it prompted 10 media organizations, including the Minnesota Newspaper Association, Minnesota Broadcasters Association and the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information to challenge the Wetterlings' request.

Many everyday citizens support the Wetterlings in this case, which is understandable. The family has been through an unimaginable ordeal — the disappearance of 11-year-old Jacob in 1989, which ultimately reached a horrific conclusion in 2016 when a child-molesting monster finally confessed to abusing and killing Jacob hours after abducting him near St. Joseph that October night nearly 30 years ago.

The last thing anyone wants is to put the family through more emotional turmoil.

But there are other issues to take into consideration. If information is shielded because of privacy concerns, it could strike a fatal blow to the Minnesota Data Practices Act, which clearly states that once a criminal investigation is complete, the data is public. It's not much of a leap to imagine anyone trying to use the same reasons the Wetterlings cite to keep public information private — not just a few dozen pages but the whole casefile. Even law enforcement agencies could cite privacy concerns and not release information. There would be no workable Data Practices Act to compel them to make the information public.

Think of the ramifications of that. The public wouldn't know details of completed investigations. They wouldn't be able to hold law enforcement agencies accountable for their actions because they wouldn't know how the prosecution built its case and whether they erred along the way.

The Data Practices Act, enacted nearly 40 years ago, has been reshaped by the Legislature through a careful, deliberate process. This one court ruling could effectively tear it down.

Judge Ann Carrott, who presided over the hearing, has a big decision to make.

Many of these thoughts were running through my mind as I was waiting out in the hallway before the hearing began. And then I saw Jacob's parents, Jerry and Patty Wetterling, walking toward me. I felt awkward, sitting there with my pen and reporter's notebook. "They must despise me — or all media right now," I thought.

But I was wrong. Patty saw me, gave me a warm, genuine smile and looking at my notebook said, "You must be from the media. I don't know if I've met you before."

I stood up, introduced myself and we shook hands. I'd never met them in person, although after seeing the Wetterlings so many times on TV, through so many interviews, it felt like I'd known them for years. I told Patty how much I enjoyed hearing her and Jerry speak at the Minnesota Newspaper Association's convention a year ago.

And then Patty, sensing the "media vs. Wetterling" awkwardness, looked at me and said, "You know, we're not enemies here."

Later, after the hearing, she elaborated more on the topic — how the family understands the media's concerns about public information, and how much the family appreciated the media in the effort to find Jacob. The goal of the court case, she said, is to "maximize transparency while minimizing the harm to victims." She said she's hoping that "good changes" will ultimately come out of the courts.

Patty and Jerry Wetterling didn't have to talk to me. They could have easily avoided me or even given me a dirty look. They could have blasted the media throughout this case. But they're more gracious than that — more respectful and more willing to consider the other side of things.

In today's world of polarized viewpoints, flashpoint tempers and you're-wrong-not-me thinking, we need more people like the Wetterlings.

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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