By Esme Murphy

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — WCCO has learned that the stunning developments in the Jacob Wetterling case are the direct result of plea deal negotiations between federal prosecutors and Danny Heinrich’s attorneys that have been happening for months.

Legal experts say this kind of a plea deal in such a notorious murder case is unprecedented, and would only happen with the full support of the Wetterling family.

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On the edge of the Paynesville area farm where Danny Heinrich led authorities to Jacob Wetterling’s remains, mourners have left flowers. While the case is now a murder investigation, the Wetterlings are now beginning to get answers, though they say it’s an incredibly painful conclusion to a case that spanned decades.

Danny Heinrich is in jail and awaiting a trial set to begin next month on 25 counts of child pornography. Legal analysts say it’s a rock solid case that will likely send him to prison for the rest of his life. No one directly involved in the plea negotiations would comment with WCCO on the record, but legal experts say the only thing prosecutors would be able to offer Heinrich is relief on the location of his incarceration.

Joe Friedberg is a prominent criminal defense attorney in the Twin Cities, though he’s not affiliated with the case. He says criminals involved in child molestation or pornography are often targets of beatings and sexual assaults in prisons.

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“There’s a place in Florence, Colorado — it’s not the highest security, but it’s secure enough — where an awful lot of people guilty of possessing child pornography are going,” Friedberg said. “That’s a place where he could probably go and be safe.”

Friedberg says whatever the terms of the deal, Heinrich would end up with a virtual life sentence.

“This clearly was well thought out. [Heinrich’s] lawyers are the best around,” he said. “Andy Luger, as the United States Attorney, has great facility for putting things in perspective and handling things with consideration for all parties.”

Heinrich’s lead attorney is Katherine Roe, the Chief Public Defender in Minnesota Federal District Court. Sources tell WCCO Heinrich could appear in court as soon as tomorrow to plead guilty. It’s not yet clear what exactly he would plead guilty to, but any guilty plea in the case would likely include Heinrich telling the court exactly what happened that day in 1989.

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Legal experts say there is absolutely no chance the US Attorney’s office would agree to a reduced sentence as part of the plea deal. On the child pornography case alone, 53-year-old Heinrich will most likely spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Esme Murphy