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Newspapers reach accord to view Earnhardt autopsy photos

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    NMU         FLORIDA         Freedom of Information         Mar 19, 2001    

Newspapers reach accord to view Earnhardt autopsy photos

  • A judge permits a medical expert to answer three questions about the injury that killed race car driver Dale Earnhardt as part of an investigation of auto racing safety.

On March 16, attorneys for the Orlando Sentinel arranged for an independent medical expert to review autopsy photographs of race car driver Dale Earnhardt.

Under an agreement reached with Earnhardt’s widow, Teresa, a court-appointed mediator will appoint the expert to view the photographs along with representatives of the Orlando Sentinel. The Orlando Sentinel will then be allowed to ask the expert three questions about the autopsy. The autopsy records will then be sealed. Mrs. Earnhardt had sued to block the Volusia County medical examiner from releasing the photos, which are public records under state open records law. The newspaper is investigating NASCAR safety and whether a five-point head restraint would have saved the popular race car driver’s life.

The 49-year-old Earnhardt was killed during a Feb. 18 crash at the Daytona 500. An autopsy said he died of a massive blow to the head.

Although the agreement binds the Orlando Sentinel, Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Tampa Tribune and WFLA-TV, who intervened in the case, it does not prohibit other media interests from filing motions with the court claiming that this agreement infringes on their right to access. The Independent Florida Alligator, the University of Florida student newspaper, has already filed a motion with the court, stating that the settlement is not in the public interest.

Although such photographs are clearly public records under the Florida open records laws, several high-profile plaintiffs have been able to convince a court to seal or restrict access to the autopsy photographs of dead relatives.

In 1998, a Miami-Dade judge sealed the autopsy photographs of Gianni Versace after he was murdered on the front door-step of his South Beach home. In 1994, a judge ordered that records custodians take precautions to make sure that photographs of the victims in the Gainesville student murders would not be removed or copied. The judge listed possible restrictions, such as a custodian holding the pictures up for viewing and restricting the numbers of person who could view pictures at the same time.

Outside of court, several bills are pending in the Florida legislature that would prohibit the release of autopsy photos without the consent of family members. Both bills are still in committee.

(Earnhardt v. Volusia County Office of Medical Examiner, Media Counsel: Margaret Kozan, George Gabel, Gregg Thomas, Holland & Knight; David Bralow, Tribune Company; Thomas Julin, Hunton & Williams) CC

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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