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Why Jacob Wetterling’s confessed killer isn't charged with murder

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MINNEAPOLIS — Jacob Wetterling’s confessed killer will never be prosecuted for murdering the 11-year-old in 1989. On Tuesday, Danny Heinrich pleaded guilty to a child porn charge in exchange for giving boy’s family the truth about what happened to their son.

Haunting confession in 1989 abduction and killing of Minnesota boy

Plea deals are the norm when it comes to criminal cases. Up to 97 percent of federal cases end up with some sort of plea bargain, reports CBS Minnesota, but Heinrich’s deal is unique because he admitted to a murder for which he won’t serve time. Instead, he’ll be in prison for one count of child pornography – a federal charge that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years. 

“Any plea agreement with Heinrich would have to include a lengthy prison sentence and an confession that could be independently verified,” said U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger. “And, of course, we need to bring Jacob home.” 

Appearing in court Tuesday, Heinrich admitted abducting Jacob from a road near the boy’s home in the central Minnesota community of St. Joseph on Oct. 22, 1989. Authorities named him as a person of interest in Jacob’s disappearance last October when they announced the child pornography charges. Those charges stemmed from a sweep of his home that resulted from a fresh look at the Wetterling case around its 25th anniversary, when investigators determined Heinrich’s DNA was linked to another boy’s 1989 sex assault long suspected to be linked to the Wetterling case.

For 10 months, prosecutors said they had been willing to negotiate, but it wasn’t until ten days ago when Danny Heinrich’s lawyers said he was willing to deal.  

“This was not an opportunity we could pass up – after almost 27 years, Danny Heinrich was willing to talk, and we had to grab the moment,” Luger said.  

Danny Heinrich CBS

Heinrich, 53, of Annandale, led authorities to Jacob’s buried remains in a central Minnesota field last week, officials said Tuesday. The Stearns County Sheriff’s Office said Jacob’s remains were identified Saturday. 

“Finally, we knew the Wetterling family could lay their son to rest,” Luger said.  

Speaking Tuesday, Stearns County Attorney Janelle P. Kendall said Minnesota statues of limitations leave her unable to prosecute for the 1989 sexual assault, to which Heinrich also admitted in court. While it wouldn’t bar state prosecutors from pursuing a murder prosecution, in the Wetterling case, her team couldn’t prove a murder without Wetterling’s remains.

“Until last Friday, proof that Jacob Wetterling was no longer alive did not exist,” she said.

She said she reached out to federal prosecutors with the hope a substantial prison sentence on federal child porn charges would be the best way to further Heinrich’s cooperation in the Wetterling investigation.

“What was most important to the Wetterlings was to bring Jacob home and to find out what happened to him,” Kendall said.    

Prosecutors use their discretion in determining how much leniency to give, but follow guidelines established by their office, Joe Tamburino, an attorney who is not affiliated with the Wetterling case, told CBS Minnesota.

Jacob Wetterling's mother speaks out after Danny Heinrich confesses to murder

“People will say 20 years is not enough and, of course, it’s not enough. He should be spending the rest of his life in prison,” Tamburino said. “But, the Wetterlings need finality and answers in this case.”

Tamburino told the station the deal offered to Heinrich was indicative of the value of the information he was able to offer. He knew something that investigators had sought to solve for decades: what happened to Wetterling, and where he hid the boy’s body.

“In this case, what Mr. Heinrich was offering was the ultimate piece of information,” says Tamburino.

Luger said Tuesday that the Wetterlings were briefed on the details on the deal before it was signed.

Under the agreement, Heinrich has waived any rights to appeal the sentence and may be subject to civil commitment after serving jail time, CBS News’ Jamie Yuccas reports. No further state prosecutions are planned for Wetterling’s murder of for Scheierl’s assault.

Heinrich is set to be sentenced Nov. 21.