Did Jacob Wetterling’s Killer get Away with Murder?

killer of jacob wetterlingMany people who have followed the disappearance of eleven year old Jacob Wetterling in 1989, are outraged at the recent events in Minneapolis.  Did Jacob Wetterling’s killer get away with murder?

The story has gone around the world.  In 1989 Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped on a dead-end road in a small town in central Minnesota.  For years, law enforcement worked the case—without success.  We all suffered with the Wetterling family as they lived through the horrible events.  A local man, Danny Heinrich, was a suspect from the start, but officials couldn’t establish enough evidence to charge him.  A few months ago, his house was searched, child porn was found, and he was charged with a couple dozen federal criminal charges—but not for murder.

Law enforcement, the prosecutors, and the Wetterling family agreed that if Heinrich made a confession to the killing of Jacob Wetterling, the authorities would not charge him with the murder and would let him plead guilty to some of the child porn charges with a prison sentence of twenty years.

That’s the sticking point—many people feel like Jacob Wetterling’s killer got away with murder.  How could someone who had done what Heinrich did, serve anything less than the rest of his life in prison?  Some wanted him executed, although that is not available to prosecutors in Minnesota.

I’ve worked almost forty years as both a prosecutor and a defense lawyer and have handled dozens of murder cases that were similar to this one but without the notoriety.  I don’t think Heinrich “got away with murder.”  Here’s why—

  1.  Had he been convicted of many of the child porn charges, he probably woudn’t have even been sentenced to the twenty years he will get with this plea deal.
  2. The prosecutors had absolutely no case against him for the murder of Jacob Wetterling.  No matter how much they wanted to get this guy, they couldn’t.  Of course, had Heinrich been charged with the murder and convicted (not possible really), he could have been sentenced to life in prison, perhaps without parole.  But since he wasn’t going to be charged, this is not a possibility.
  3. Heinrich had an absolute right to remain silent under the constitution.  He couldn’t be forced to say anything.
  4. The Wetterling family, prosecutors, and most of the rest of us wanted closure on the case.  What really happened?

For all these reasons, the prosecutors and defense lawyers agreed to the plea to the child porn case, a confession in court to the murder, and a twenty year sentence.  Actually, I’m surprised that Heinrich agreed with it.  My personal thoughts are that he felt guilty—perhaps for years—about what he did and this was the right opportunity to come clean about what happened to clear his conscience.  Here’s the story from the StarTribune– http://www.startribune.com/danny-heinrich-confesses-to-abducting-and-killing-jacob-wetterling/392438361/

So when people get mad and say Jacob Wetterling’s killer got away with murder, they’re wrong.

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About Colin Nelson

Colin T. Nelson worked for 40 years as a prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis. He tried everything from speeding tickets to first degree murder. His writing about the courtroom and the legal system give the reader a "back door" view of what goes on, what's funny, and what's a good story. He has also traveled extensively and includes those locations in his mysteries. Some are set in Southeast Asia, Ecuador,Peru, and South Africa. Readers get a suspenseful tale while learning about new places on the planet. Colin is married, has two adult children, and plays the saxophone in various bands.

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