People keep saying, “Well, at least the Wetterlings have closure…” now that Danny Heinrich has confessed.
But there’s no such thing as “closure” in a case like this – a case that went unsolved for roughly 27 years, and kept Jacob’s parents in the dark on what happened to their son all that time, not knowing for certain whether he was dead or alive.
On Sept. 6, 2016, in a federal courtroom in Minneapolis, Heinrich confessed to abducting, molesting, and killing 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling, nearly three decades ago, on Oct. 22, 1989.
Snatched Off a Bike in St. Joseph, Minn.
“This one case […] changed the lives of millions of Americans.”
That’s how American Public Media’s “In the Dark” podcast characterizes it, claiming that the case changed parenting, aroused nightmares of kids snatched at gunpoint off their bikes only short distances away from their homes, as Jacob was.
The case changed parenting but also changed the law.
The Wetterling Act
In the years since Jacob’s abduction in 1989, Patty Wetterling (his mother) became a prominent advocate, working to protect children from abuse and neglect. Patty’s advocacy played a key role in helping create what we know today as the sex offender registry.
A conviction for first-degree rape, for example, or child abduction, may likely require the person to publish his or her name, picture, and home address on a public database accessible online. In some cases, the registration requirement lasts throughout the person’s lifetime.
In 1994, lawmakers passed the federal Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, which required states to implement sex offender registries. The follow-up Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush on July 27, 2006, created a national registry and required states to conform to its standards.
Patty Criticizes the Sex Offender Laws as Overly Broad
In the years since these laws passed, Patty has criticized them for being too broad, for catching too many people in the net, such as teenagers in a consensual relationship – not necessarily the Danny Heinrichs of the world.
That said, very few people argue that Heinrich himself shouldn’t be placed on the sex offender registry. In fact, a quick survey of Internet opinion and news articles reveals that many people believe justice wasn’t served.
The Plea Deal
“We got the truth,” said a person close to the case (presumably a law enforcement official), as heard on the “In the Dark” podcast. “The Wetterling family can bring [Jacob] home.”
What it took to get the truth, though, was a plea deal that “at least” brings closure, if not justice. In exchange for his confession – a confession that led investigators to Jacob’s remains – the state dropped the possibility of bringing murder charges against him.
Heinrich will still serve time in prison, though, on charges involving child pornography, after which he may be detained indefinitely under the state’s civil commitment laws.