In federal court in Minnesota, a middle-aged man named Danny Heinrich confessed to being the killer of Jacob Wetterling, an eleven year old boy Heinrich kidnapped in 1989. It has been one of the most infamous—and chilling—cases in the history of the state. Unsolved for twenty-seven years, the case led to changes in how kids are protected, new federal and state laws about kidnapping, and a greater awareness of child safety—even in small towns across the country. See news story in StarTribune: http://www.startribune.com/danny-heinrich-confesses-to-abducting-and-killing-jacob-wetterling/392438361/
Why did the killer of Jacob Wetterling confess?
I’ve worked for almost forty years as both a prosecutor and a criminal defense lawyer. I’ve prosecuted and defended similar cases. Here’s what I’ve learned over the years.
- Of course, the obvious reason the killer of Jacob Wetterling confessed is because of the plea deal he received from prosecutors. Heinrich faced several counts of child porn charges in federal court but was not charged with murder of Jacob Wetterling. Prosecutors and defense lawyers agreed that if Heinrich plead guilty to the child porn case and confessed to murdering Jacob Wetterling, he would receive a sentence of 20 years and not be charged with murder. Potentially, if he had been charged and convicted of the sexual assault of the boy and the murder, Heinrich could have faced more than 20 years in prison. Unfortunately for prosecutors, they didn’t have any evidence to charge him with murder. They wanted an answer that has haunted thousands of people around the country for 27 years
- In my experience, there is often more to a confession than simply less prison time—although that is certainly a strong motivation. I think there’s more to this case that caused the killer of Jacob Wetterling to confess. After all, he would never have been charged with murder because of the lack of evidence. Even if convicted of the child porn case, he probably would’ve served less time in federal prison. So, why did he confess?
- One reason I’ve seen quite often is an appeal to the killer based on moral standards. The investigators will often say things like: “You know you’re guilty. Why don’t you get right with God and confess?” Guilt goes a long way. For those defendants who believe in God, the appeal can work and make them confess even when it seems in their best interest—in this world—to keep quiet.
- Another tactic I’ve seen is for the investigator to appeal to family, especially the defendant’s mother. Something like: “What would your mother say if she knew you murdered someone? Wouldn’t you want to come straight for her sake and get this off your chest?” This approach works with certain defendants.
- Sometimes, it’s a reminder of how the victims and the families are suffering that will move a defendant to confess to a murder.
I don’t know exactly what motivated the killer of Jacob Wetterling to confess, but I would guess it involved not only the plea deal on prison time and potential charges, but also one of the other appeals to a higher moral obligation that even the most hardened criminals often respond to.