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After grief, public stake in pictures seems clear

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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2001

Let's talk calmly for a second, and with no disrespect toward anybody or anybody's memory.

There are good and strong reasons that the records of an autopsy, including photographs, are public documents in the state of Florida.

A long time ago, Florida decided by law that unnatural deaths must be investigated, and that the results of those investigations must be made public.

It is wrong to say, as our governor and Legislature now say, even out of noble and understandable sympathy to Dale Earnhardt's widow, that we need more secrecy around these investigations.

The reasons affect all 15-million of us.

There are plenty of unexpected deaths in this state's nursing homes.

There are deaths occurring in the custody of the state.

There are prison inmates kicked to death by guards.

There are little kids killed by their camp counselors.

There are deaths in Scientology-owned hotels.

There are deaths in county jails. There are deaths in hospitals. There are deaths in foster homes. There are deaths, tragically, during school events.

Yes, there even are deaths that happen during sporting events.

All of these deaths are referred to Florida's district medical examiners, as are all unnatural deaths in Florida.

The results, including the visual record, are public documents.

Here is a good question asked by backers of more secrecy:

What public interest is served by looking at photographs?

Aren't the words enough?

The answer is: Sometimes, they are. But sometimes not.

Sometimes the photograph is the key part of the autopsy. Sometimes a photograph contains more truth than any words on the page.

Just last year, the Pasco-Pinellas medical examiner had to revisit 150 autopsies performed by a doctor who was later forced to resign. In one case, much after the fact, police were informed that an "accidental" death might have been a homicide after all.

The words changed.

The pictures didn't.

It is against the public interest to say now that in the future, no matter how many deaths occur in a particular place, or in a particular manner, or how much they cry out for corrective action, that the public may not see the photographic evidence.


Many times, the circumstances of a death in Florida involves questions about the conduct of the government itself. To pass a law saying that only the government can see the photographic record of an autopsy is doubly wrong.

So it is not disrespectful to Dale Earnhardt's family to say, let an expert look at the photographs -- not copy them, not reprint them -- but look at them only, to draw any conclusions that might be drawn.

It is not disrespectful to Teresa Earnhardt.

It is not a desecration of his memory.

Here is what it is:

It is an uncomfortable additional inquiry for NASCAR.

It is a chance for fans who have felt only grief to convert their grief into anger at a specific target -- the big, bad, evil media.

It is a chance for politicians in Tallahassee to whip up the cheers of the crowd.

I hope that Gov. Bush and state Sen. Jim King, who are good and reasonable men, will come to understand that it is possible to feel sympathy for Teresa Earnhardt without unwisely rewriting the law of Florida.

Secrecy does not help. Covering up the truth does not help. In the long run it makes things worse. Always.

- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at

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