At a news conference about a year ago, high-ranking officers from several agencies named 53-year-old Danny Heinrich a "person of interest" in the 1989 abduction of Jacob Wetterling. This designation came months after Stearns County Sheriff's deputies and FBI agents searched his home in Annandale, discovering binders of child pornography, and before Heinrich confessed to murdering Wetterling as part of a plea deal.
U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger, at the podium, stated that Heinrich was "not charged at this time" in the case. But Richard Thornton, FBI special agent in charge, said Heinrich was a person of interest in the abduction, partly because his DNA matched that retrieved in another crime for which the statute of limitations had run out.
"Person of interest" is a term widely used by the police, but it's relatively new, having emerged in the mid-1990s. In most cases, it appears to be a euphemism for "suspect," with enough vagueness thrown in to temper expectations and afford legal protection. "The beauty is that nobody knows what it means and that it has no definition," said Paul Rothstein, a professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C. "It covers a multifarious group of situations and therefore no one can say that it means this person is a suspect, because they aren't yet. Because there isn't enough information.
"It's a way for police and prosecutors to disguise that they really have some grounds to suspect that a person played some role in a crime," he said. "But they don't feel they have enough evidence that they want to essentially perhaps defame the person by suggesting to the public that this person has committed a crime or is a full suspect in a crime."
It seems clear, though, that the term is intended to cast aspersions, said Donna Shaw, a professor of journalism at the College of New Jersey and a former reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. "There are legal definitions for other terms like, 'suspect,' 'material witness,' 'subject,' 'target,' but 'person of interest,' according to the people I talk to in law enforcement, was left deliberately up in the air as a catch-all for a couple of reasons," she said. "One, so police and federal agents could tell reporters, 'Well, we have a person of interest.' So it kind of gets the reporters off their backs, like, 'Ooh, they're making progress on the case!' But the other thing, which probably (is) a little more bothersome, is that it's a way for them to talk to people who might become suspects, or perhaps are already suspects, without them being Mirandized. And that's the part that really could be troubling, if you're telling somebody, 'Oh, well, you're not a suspect, you're a person of interest.'"
The term apparently arose after the case of Richard Jewell, the security guard who found a backpack containing a bomb on the grounds of the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta. He alerted the police and helped evacuate people before the bomb exploded. At first hailed a hero, Jewell came to be regarded as a suspect. The FBI publicly searched his home and he was essentially convicted in the media, who attacked him, he said, like "piranha on a bleeding cow." His life was upended before he was eventually cleared. Jewell won lawsuits against various media organizations, and the attorney general at the time, Janet Reno, formally apologized.
Essentially, the term "person of interest" emerged as the ultimate cover for police and news organizations. "I think that there were lots of complaints and lawsuits about people being called suspects and then being proven to be innocent, and a lot of criticism of the police," said Rothstein, the Georgetown professor. "And I think that gave rise to this notion that it should be called 'person of interest' and not 'suspect.' 'Person of interest' has a less negative connotation .... Thinking back, I saw that phrase 'person of interest' very rarely beyond 20 years ago."
Heinrich wasn't the first person of interest in the Wetterling case. In 2010, Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner applied that label to Dan Rassier, who lives on the farm at the end of the driveway where Jacob was abducted. The police searched his property several times, including in 2010 with backhoes, but found nothing connecting him to the crime. Even so, Sanner declined to clear Rassier — stating "this doesn't change anything" — leaving him in a frustrating limbo that affected his work and even his dating prospects. The agony of the situation caused Rassier to write a letter in 2012 to various government officials and agencies. He wrote, "To destroy our family's name the way they did because they had a 'Hunch!' is in itself, a serious crime. Nothing can make it right now. The damage has been done. But to leave the whole thing open to speculation and open to the public's imagination is just wrong!"
Finally, after Heinrich confessed a few weeks ago, Sanner acknowledged that the move "essentially cleared" Rassier of the crime. Rassier is considering filing a lawsuit.
Even Rothstein, who supports the use of the term, calling it a beautiful compromise between competing interests, thinks there should be a limit on how long the cloud can linger. "I think it should be a term that should only be used for a short period of time, and then the police should fish or cut bait," he said. "They should clear your name and announce that you are totally innocent and not a suspect and are no longer a person of interest, or they should charge you with a crime so that you can then defend yourself and say 'I didn't commit this crime.' And that should be done in fairly short order."
Shaw, the journalism professor, is bothered by the fact that the police so freely use a term that is ill-defined and uncontained. "It's troubling to me that they don't know what it means, that they're just using it casually," she said. "Let's not forget that we're talking about ruining somebody's life potentially. Once you call somebody a 'person of interest,' and that is out there, the internet never forgets, at least not in this country. And so for the rest of your life, you're going to be referred to as a 'person of interest,' at least on the Internet, and they may or may not link to the update that says, 'Never mind, this was the wrong person; they were totally innocent.'"
Researcher Natalie Jablonski contributed to this story.