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Florida judge hears testimony on autopsy-photo law

By The Associated Press

06.11.01

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Teresa Earnhardt, widow of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, arrives at Volusia County Courthouse annex in Daytona Beach, Fla., today.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Attorneys seeking access to the autopsy photos of racing legend Dale Earnhardt attacked a new Florida law that seals such pictures, telling a judge today that it was vague and unconstitutional.

Attorneys for the Independent Florida Alligator, a student newspaper at the University of Florida, and Websitecity.com, a DeLand-based Web site, want Circuit Judge Joseph Will to toss out the law, which was adopted shortly after Earnhardt was killed in February's Daytona 500.

"In enacting this law, the Legislature quite properly could not say release of these records would cause the type of harm we're talking about," said Tom Julin, an attorney for the student newspaper.

The law makes it a felony to release autopsy photos without a judge's permission. Previously, such photos had been public record under Florida's Sunshine Law.

Even before the new law was passed, Will had barred access to the Earnhardt photos, and he is being asked to reverse that ruling, too. The judge issued that ruling four days after Earnhardt's death Feb. 18 in a crash at the Daytona 500.

Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, had argued in seeking the order that release of the photos would violate her family's privacy. She was expected to testify later today or tomorrow.

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

Lawyers for the Florida Attorney General's Office maintained that access to public records isn't a fundamental right in the state's constitution.

The two sides also disagree on whether the new law can be applied retroactively to Earnhardt's case.

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

One news 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 expert concluded Earnhardt's fatal injury wasn't a result of a malfunctioning seat belt, but rather a result of his neck snapping when his black No. 3 Chevrolet hit the wall head-on at 180 mph.

Meanwhile, the Sentinel and its sister newspaper, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, based in Fort Lauderdale, are also challenging the autopsy-photo law but in another county.

Update

Florida judge upholds state law sealing autopsy photos
Meanwhile, court still considering challenge to order barring access to Dale Earnhardt photos.  06.12.01

Previous

Court: Student newspaper, Web site can challenge Florida autopsy-photo law
Judge says court needs to resolve conflict between privacy rights, public-records statute.  04.06.01

Related

News outlets ask to join challenge of Florida autopsy-photo law
Attorney says there is ‘widespread newspaper support’ for lawsuit questioning constitutionality of recently passed statute.  04.19.01

Earnhardt autopsy photos are public record
By Ken Paulson Why the rush to change Florida law? Public’s demand to stop press from doing its job should worry us all.  04.08.01

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