Florida judge upholds state law sealing autopsy photos
By The Associated Press
|Judge Joseph Will
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. A judge has upheld a new Florida law 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 yesterday that the law, which makes it a felony to release autopsy photos without a judge's permission, was "valid and constitutional." It was passed by the Florida Legislature in March after Earnhardt died Feb. 18 in a final-lap crash at the Daytona 500.
Previously, such photos had been public record. The new law also prevents inspection of autopsy photos and records.
"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 Websitecity.com, a DeLand-based Web site, had sought to overturn the new law.
"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 that 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."
Florida Solicitor General Tom Warner, however, 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."
Today, the judge was to hear testimony aimed at reversing his order that sealed the Earnhardt photos, which he 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 today.
In his arguments, Julin said the autopsy photos had been helpful to the public by allowing independent investigations of insurance claims, malpractice and murders.
The newspaper also contended the new law couldn't be applied retroactively.
Earnhardt lawyers argued in their filings that the only reason access to the photos was being sought is to grab public attention and sell newspapers. Parker Thompson, an Earnhardt family lawyer, called the newspaper 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 Earnhardts' privacy versus the right of the people who see autopsy photos."
A decision on whether to appeal yesterday's ruling won't be made until after today's hearing, Julin said.
One news outlet did get partial access to the photos. Teresa Earnhardt and the Orlando Sentinel reached a settlement that allowed an independent medical expert to view the photos and issue a report before the photos were permanently sealed.
The medical expert later determined that Earnhardt died because his neck snapped when his black No. 3 Chevrolet hit the wall head-on at 180 mph., not because his head struck the steering wheel as a result of a malfunctioning seat belt.
A NASCAR doctor had suggested earlier that the broken seat belt might have played a role in his death.
Trey Csar, the Alligator's incoming managing editor, said he was disappointed by the ruling and that he thought the newspaper's lawyers had proved the law was too broad.
"(The law) places the burden proof on us, but everybody knows this is not going to end tomorrow," Csar said yesterday.
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