MINNEAPOLIS - Danny Heinrich, Jacob Wetterling’s confessed killer, is scheduled to be sentenced next week to 20 years in federal prison for his conviction on child pornography charges.
Heinrich was charged in federal court because child pornography sentences can be much longer than in Minnesota courts.
In fact a KARE 11 investigation finds the vast majority of people convicted in Minnesota of possessing child pornography never spend a single day in state prison.
KARE11 analyzed 10 years’ worth of sentences handed down in Minnesota courts on child pornography charges. Between 2004 and 2014 there were 873 convictions.
Record show only 12 percent of those convictions – 106 in all – resulted in the offender receiving a sentence that included active state prison time.
The majority received a stayed prison sentence, often serving just a few months in a local jail or workhouse.
Jacob Kinn is one of them.
Kinn’s criminal history became headline news in June when he was arrested in a twisted case that involves a burned home, a dead babysitter, and a kidnapped 5-year-old Beltrami County girl.
While he has yet to go to trial, Kinn is currently facing charges of kidnapping and sexual assault in connection with that case. But his interest in sexual violence against children was documented years earlier.
In 2013, he was arrested for possession of child pornography. Court records detail how investigators found graphic videos of very young children being raped and sodomized on his computer.
While out on bail awaiting trial in that case, records indicate he placed an advertisement on Craigslist trying to “purchase a young girl for a private photo shoot”.
Kinn was convicted in the pornography case. But in spite of the violent videos, he was not sent to state prison.
He was sentenced instead to 120 days in a local jail followed by probation.
He was still on probation when he allegedly kidnapped and assaulted the 5-year-old girl this summer. Authorities found her bound with duct tape in a pop-up camper near Bigfork.
SHORT SENTENCES ARE COMMON
KARE 11’s investigation found short sentences in local jails like the one Kinn received are not uncommon, even for some repeat offenders.
“It tells me that Minnesota has a fundamental misunderstanding of child exploitation crimes,” said Camille Cooper, the Director of Legislative Affairs for the National Association to Protect Children.
“Essentially they’ve created a safe harbor in Minnesota,” she added.
Cooper claims Minnesota law has a pair of loopholes allowing child pornography traffickers to flourish.
The first loophole was created by the Minnesota Legislature and its designee, the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission.
In 2006, the Commission created a sex offender sentencing chart which spells out the presumptive time judges should hand out in cases involving child pornography and other sex-based offenses.
The chart calls for most convictions for child pornography possession and dissemination to result in a stayed prison sentence. Instead, judges are encouraged to order probation and at their discretion up to a year in a local jail.
KARE 11’s analysis of sentencing data found very few offenders spending anywhere close to that full year in jail. In fact, the data indicates the average time spent behind bars was just 68 days.
“The guys that are getting caught, are getting sweetheart sentences as a result of this presumptive stay and judicial discretion,” said Cooper.
Judicial discretion is the second loophole, according to Cooper. She says too often Minnesota judges cut child pornography traffickers a break in serious cases in which the Sentencing Guidelines actually call for state prison time to be served.
KARE 11’s investigation found that in 49 percent of those cases, judges gave what’s called a “downward dispositional departure” resulting in no prison time.
As a result, Cooper claims Minnesota “has essentially decriminalized child pornography and child exploitation crimes.”
That’s especially true, she argues, since law enforcement often must focus on the worst cases of child pornography. “Child pornography is essentially the crime scene image of very young children under 12 being penetrated, sodomized, tied up, bound, gagged and tortured,” Cooper said.
Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson tried to increase penalties for child pornography 10 years ago when he served in the state legislature.
UNDERSTANDING THE WETTERLING CASE
Understanding Minnesota’s weak sentencing patterns in child pornography cases provides context for the legal maneuvers that took place in the state’s most famous child pornography case.
When authorities wanted to put pressure on Danny Heinrich to confess in the Jacob Wetterling case, Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall asked to have him charged federally, rather than in state court, after child pornography was found in a search of his Annandale home.
She explained that federal charges and heavier prison sentences they carry were a way to gain leverage to get Heinrich to reveal the location of Jacob’s body.
“Because of greater federal sentencing consequences compared to those available in a state law prosecution for possession of child pornography, I called United States Attorney Andy Luger and asked for consideration of the exercise of federal jurisdiction on the child pornography case, seeking leverage that a substantial federal prison sentence could provide in furthering the Wetterling investigation,” Kendall said in a statement.
Trying to use Minnesota law as leverage to convince Heinrich reveal what happened to Jacob would have been almost impossible.
If he had been facing a likely sentence of probation instead prison, Heinrich would have had no incentive to cave, and Jacob Wetterling may have never been brought home.
While Minnesota has a presumed sentence of probation for child pornography, a federal conviction carries a minimum 5-year sentence. Wisconsin’s presumed sentence is three years in prison.
To coincide with KARE 11’s investigation, the National Association to Protect Children (PROTECT) published their own review of sentencing in child pornography cases in Minnesota. Read Children Betrayed here.