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My Thoughts On The Plea Agreement Reached In The Wetterling Case

I am writing this blog about the Wetterling case in response to the many questions I have received following the recent turn of events. In particular, many have expressed their belief that the plea agreement reached with the man-who admitted to abducting, sexually assaulting and killing, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling, in 1989-is not severe enough.

Case Background

First a little background on the facts of the case. Approximately a year ago, a new DNA test tied a longtime suspect in the case to a similar abduction and sexual assault of another boy. The boy in that abduction, which occurred a few months before Jacob's disappearance, in the same area of Central Minnesota where Jacob was abducted, was released after the sexual assault. With this new information a search warrant was obtained and child pornography was found in the suspect's home. The suspect was taken into custody while authorities--lacking evidence that proved he was involved in the Wetterling case--built a pornography case against him.

Cooperation Between State And Federal Authorities

In what is becoming a more common tactic utilized by state prosecuting authorities, the Stearns County Attorney sought the assistance of federal prosecutors in the pornography case, to take advantage of the much more severe consequences of federal criminal convictions. Interagency cooperation between state and federal prosecutors is often utilized when state sentencing guidelines just don't seem to be severe enough to fit a particular crime. In pornography, as well as drug cases, it is common for state authorities to leverage pleas from defendants by threatening to "turn the case over to the feds."

Facing life the prospect of life in prison, for possession of pornography, was apparently an incentive for Danny Heinrich to plead guilty, and instead be sentenced to 20 years in prison.

What Happens When The State Becomes Involved

People have questioned whether the Wetterlings approved the deal. On this issue people asked what the proper role of a victim's family in the plea agreement process is. Once the State begins a prosecution, a case is transformed into the state v. defendant. This is true in any criminal prosecution and in particular, people involved in domestic disputes, often fail to realize that once the police are involved it is no longer husband v. wife but state v. the charged party. At that point, the alleged victim cannot decide to not prosecute the case. While state involvement does not mean an alleged victim can't express a preference for how the case should be resolved, victim sentiment is but one factor in determining whether a plea deal should be offered, and what the specifics of that offer should be.

It is clear from the post-plea comments that the Wetterlings in fact did approve the deal. They wanted what most people would call closure. Patty Wetterling called it bringing Jacob home.

Is The Sentence Adequate?

Many people have questioned whether the 20 year sentence is long enough for this horrible crime. Mr. Heinrich will invariably never be set free. After serving 85 percent of his sentence he will likely be civilly committed as a dangerous sexual predator. (There is concern among some regarding whether he will ultimately be committed, as such programs have been challenged as being unconstitutional, but that is an issue for another blog.)

As part of the deal, Heinrich was not charged with Jacob's murder. Criminal penalties related to the abduction and sexual assault of the other boy, mentioned above, are not possible as the statute of limitations for charges in those crimes, have run.

So is the sentence severe enough? You decide. Many facing long prison terms would rather be put to death than to never see the light of day.

Encouraging Plea Deals By Providing Safe Incarceration

The last comment I heard from folks about their perception that the plea deal was too lenient, was that Mr. Heinrich should be "mistakenly" put in with the general population of a prison where he would receive "what he deserves." It stands to reason that placement in a facility where he would be free from the threat of retribution was invariably part of the plea deal.

Personal feelings aside, these types of terms in an agreement are necessary. If a defendant is not protected from fellow inmates after incarceration and fears retribution, the incentive to plead would be greatly diminished. This would ultimately discourage plea agreements upon which many successful prosecutions depend.

Upholding The Rule Of Law

Mr.Heinrich's conduct was reprehensible but the state cannot engage in such conduct not only for the practical reasons outlined above, but also for moral reasons. As a society we are better than that. The state will probably send Heinrich to a federal facility in Colorado where many sex offenders are housed, and he will likely never be free to harm any other children.

The rule of law must govern no matter how heinous the conduct of individual defendants. It is a bitter thing to swallow but it is the right thing to do in a civilized society.

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