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Teresa Earnhardt testimony sways court to close access

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    NMU         FLORIDA         Freedom of Information         Jun 14, 2001    

Teresa Earnhardt testimony sways court to close access

  • The photographs of Dale Earnhardt’s autopsy remain impounded after a ruling by a Florida state judge.

Attorneys for media interests in Florida have lost one fight for access to autopsy photographs of the late Dale Earnhardt after his widow testified against their release.

On June 13, Judge Joseph Will issued an order keeping the autopsy photographs of Dale Earnhardt closed to protect the privacy of the Earnhardt family. The media did win a small victory when Will refused to grant Earnhardt’s request for a permanent injunction barring the media involved in the case from ever viewing the photographs.

Two days prior to issuing the ruling, Will validated a state law enacted in March that prohibits access to autopsy photographs without a judge’s approval. In that action, the judge ruled that under the state constitution the law passed in response to Earnhardt’s death could apply retroactively to the autopsy photographs. The Florida Society of Newspaper Editors, Florida Press Association and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press had submitted a friend-of-the-court brief, arguing that the law was unconstitutional.

Will’s ruling left attorneys for the University of Florida student-run newspaper, the Independent Florida Alligator, and a Web site operator representing himself to argue that the records should be released by the judge under the law.

Teresa Earnhardt took the stand to ask the judge not to release the photographs because they were “humiliating, disgusting, and negative.”

Attorneys for the media argued that the records should be made public so experts can review the cause of Earnhardt’s death in an attempt to prevent similar deaths on the NASCAR circuit.

Independent Florida Alligator Editor Jason Brown told NBC News that he sympathized with Mrs. Earnhardt.

“We don’t want to cause her anymore suffering than she’s already gone through with the loss of her husband,” he said on June 12. “We simply want to be able to gain as much information as we can to get the information to the public.”

The fight for access to these records is not over. Attorneys for the media plan to appeal Will’s order and the Orlando Sentinel continues to challenge the validity of the law in a separate case in Broward County.

(Earnhardt v. Volusia County, Office of the Medical Examiner; Media attorneys: 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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