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Top court declines autopsy photo appeal

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Top court declines autopsy photo appeal

  • Restriction on accessing NASCAR racer Dale Earnhardt’s autopsy photos allowed to stand.

July 3, 2003 — Ending nearly a century of access to autopsy photos in the Sunshine State, the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to hear an appeal that a law restricting access to the photos violates the state constitution’s guarantee of open government.

The death of wildly popular NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt inspired the law that with the help of Gov. Jeb Bush raced through the legislature. The 49-year-old Earnhardt was killed during a Feb. 18, 2001, crash at the Daytona 500. Six weeks after the death, a judge’s permission was necessary under the new law to access autopsy photographs that were formerly public record under Florida law.

This is the first challenge of the new law to reach Florida’s top court, which made no comment about its 4-3 decision not to take the case. The court refused to review a decision by the 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach, which upheld the law and said unauthorized viewing of autopsy photos violated families’ privacy rights.

“I think the court is clearly ducking the issue,” said Tom Julin, attorney for the Independent Florida Alligator. The University of Florida campus newspaper sought to have the law overturned.

“This is just pure politics in play and in this case politics overrode the constitution,” Julin said.

Prior to the law being passed, Earnhardt’s widow, Teresa, obtained an injunction barring medical examiners from making the photos public. Several news organizations, including the Orlando Sentinel, reached agreement with her to allow for examination by an independent, court-appointed expert. The expert said Earnhardt died from violent head-whipping action, contrary to NASCAR officials’ findings that the death was caused by a faulty seatbelt.

“There was a very serious issue about whether NASCAR had covered up the true cause of Dale Earnhardt’s death,” Julin said. “The ruling here allows the public to be denied knowledge about that.”

Another challenge to the law by the Sentinel, the South Florida-Sun-Sentinel and other news organizations is pending in the 4th District Court of Appeal in Palm Beach. It is scheduled to hear the case on Sept. 5. The newspapers are still seeking access to autopsy photos, but not Earnhardt’s.

(Campus Communications v. Teresa Earnhardt; Media counsel: Tom Julin, Hunton & Williams LLP, Miami. Orlando Sentinel v. Perper) KH

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