Daytona Beach judge upholds law passed by Florida Legislature

Earnhardt autopsy photos to remain sealed

Posted: Tuesday, June 12, 2001

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- A judge upheld a new Florida law on Monday that was crafted to seal autopsy photos of racing legend Dale Earnhardt, rejecting arguments that it unfairly prevented access to public information.

Circuit Judge Joseph Will said the law was ''valid and constitutional'' in upholding the law passed by the Florida Legislature in March making it a felony to release autopsy photos without a judge's permission.

Previously, such photos had been public record.

''The court finds the legislature stated with specificity the necessity justifying the exemption of public records law,'' Will said.

Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, had no visible reaction when the decision was read, but she did whisper ''Thank you'' to her attorneys.

Attorneys for the Independent Florida Alligator, a student newspaper at the University of Florida, and, a DeLand-based Web site, wanted Will to toss out the law, which was adopted shortly after Earnhardt died Feb. 18 following the last-lap crash in the Daytona 500.

''This is a terrible decision upholding this statute, especially for those people who really need these types of records,'' said Tom Julin, an attorney for the student newspaper.

Michael Uribe, the Web site's owner, suggested the judge was influenced by NASCAR's popularity.

''We're in the heart of NASCAR, we're at Daytona International Speedway's city here, and he's an elected official,'' Uribe said. ''And I just don't see him wanting to jeopardize his standing by ruling inconsistent with what the community wants.''

However, Florida Solicitor General Tom Warner said the ruling validates the Legislature's actions. During the past session, lawmakers were criticized for acting too rashly and in their haste, drafting an unconstitutional law.

''This case exposed the problems of trying to balance the right of privacy in Florida versus the right of access to public information,'' Warner said.

In Tallahassee, Gov. Jeb Bush's spokeswoman Katie Baur praised the decision.

''This is a victory for everyone who seeks to prevent their private tragedy from being publicly exploited,'' she said. ''Maybe now the Earnhardt family can grieve in solitude, and Dale Earnhardt can rest in peace.''

On Tuesday, the judge will hear testimony aimed at reversing his order sealing the photos issued four days after the racer's death. Teresa Earnhardt had sought the order, saying her family's privacy would be violated if the photos were released.

She was expected to testify Tuesday.

The new law not only forbids copying of autopsy photos and records, but also prevents inspecting the records.

In his arguments, Julin said the autopsy photos have been helpful to the public by allowing independent investigations of insurance claims, malpractice and murders.

The newspaper also contended the new law can't be applied retroactively.

Earnhardt lawyers argued in their filings that the only reason access to the photos is being sought is to grab public attention and sell newspapers.

Parker Thompson, an Earnhardt family lawyer, called the newspaper's and Web site's argument ''a constitutional shell game.''

Judson Graves, another Earnhardt attorney, said the decision was not surprising.

''It may well go on appeal, but we just want to take it one step at a time,'' Graves said. ''I think the judge has ruled appropriately that the balancing test should be done, and it'll be the right of the Earnhardt's privacy versus the right of the people who see autopsy photos.''

One media outlet did get partial access to the photos.

Teresa Earnhardt and the Orlando Sentinel reached a settlement allowing an independent medical expert to view the photos and issue a report before the photos were permanently sealed.

The medical expert later determined Earnhardt's fatal injury wasn't from striking his head on a steering wheel because of a malfunctioning seat belt but that his neck snapped when his black No. 3 Chevrolet hit the wall head-on at 180 mph.

A NASCAR doctor earlier suggested the broken seat belt might have played a role in his death.

The Alligator and asked to intervene in the case, stating they couldn't be forced to be a part of the settlement.

Trey Csar, the Alligator's incoming managing editor, said he thought the newspaper's lawyers proved the law was too broad and he was disappointed with the ruling.

A decision to appeal Monday's ruling won't be made until after Tuesday's hearing, Julin said.

''(The law) places the burden proof on us, but everybody knows this is not going to end tomorrow,'' Csar said.

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