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Butterworth joins autopsy photo fight

Is he siding with the media or with the Earnhardt family? He's in the middle, an official says.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001

TALLAHASSEE -- Attorney General Bob Butterworth has offered to help a court decide what to do in a dispute over access to autopsy photos of racing star Dale Earnhardt.

Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, has asked legislators to help block access to the photos, which are a public record under state law.

Mrs. Earnhardt's plea for help has generated more than 17,000 e-mails to Gov. Jeb Bush and thousands more to legislators, who already have filed a bill to exempt such photos from the public record.

Late Friday, state Solicitor General Tom Warner asked to appear on Butterworth's behalf as a "friend of the court." Warner said he filed a motion with the court after learning that a pretrial hearing on the release of the photos has been scheduled for Monday. Warner said Butterworth strongly supports the state's public records law but is "also sympathetic to and supports the concerns of the Earnhardt family about publication of the autopsy photos."

The Orlando Sentinel has filed suit seeking access to the photos so that an outside expert can review them and issue an opinion on the cause of death. The Sentinel does not plan to publish the autopsy photos but wants a neurotrauma expert to examine them in the office of a Volusia County judge.

But two other requests for the photos have come from citizens who want to copy them, a situation that could result in their publication.

In a statement released late Friday, Warner said the case presents difficult questions about the right of the media to pursue the news and the plight of a family caught in a situation in which autopsy photos might be published.

Asked which side Butterworth is actually on, Warner said, "I think the honest position is somewhere in the middle. We were trying to communicate that this is a matter of great public interest, and we have a lot of sympathy for the position of Mrs. Earnhardt. On the other hand, the public records act is something we strongly support."

Warner said Butterworth is supportive of Mrs. Earnhardt's wish not to have the photos distributed and published worldwide and hopes the court will be able to accommodate her request.

Senate Majority Leader Jim King, sponsor of a bill that would block access to all autopsy photos, said he is discussing amendments that would allow access to the photos in some instances in an effort to reach a truce with the state's news organizations, who oppose a broad prohibition against access to the records.

Also Friday, First Amendment Foundation executive director Barbara Petersen said a compromise will be offered to lawmakers next week.

She said she will ask them to consider allowing an unlimited right of public inspection of autopsy photos, with a blanket prohibition on copying them unless a judge approves it based on a showing of great public concern. She said she will argue that public access to autopsy photos must be protected, but that editors also realize the pain their publication could cause.

"The newspapers accept the fact that these can be incredibly sensitive, in certain circumstances," said Petersen, who received dozens of e-mails and calls from NASCAR followers after her address and phone number were posted on a Web site.

- Information from Knight Ridder Newspapers was used in this report.

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