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Judge orders meeting on Earnhardt photos

Attorneys for Teresa Earnhardt and the Orlando Sentinel will seek a compromise on viewing the autopsy photos.

By Staff and wire reports

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 14, 2001


DAYTONA BEACH -- A judge on Tuesday ordered Dale Earnhardt's widow and attorneys for the Orlando Sentinel to meet to resolve their dispute over the release of the NASCAR legend's autopsy photos.

The order for the face-to-face meeting came as a Florida Senate committee unanimously approved a bill that would restrict the public's access to autopsy photos.

Under existing state law, the photos are a public record, but Circuit Judge Joseph G. Will blocked their release pending a March 19 hearing on Teresa Earnhardt's request. Dale Earnhardt was killed in a crash Feb. 18 at the Daytona 500.

At a court hearing in Daytona Beach on Tuesday, Will told attorneys for Mrs. Earnhardt and the Sentinel to meet at 9 a.m. Thursday. Former Volusia County Judge John J. Upchurch IV will serve as mediator.

"I would like you to stay here until you settle it or until you are absolutely sure that you can't," Will told attorneys for Mrs. Earnhardt and the newspaper.

The two sides have until March 19 to reach an agreement, or it will be up to the judge to rule on the fate of the photos.

"From the outset we have requested an opportunity to speak to Teresa Earnhardt," said David Bralow, an attorney for the Sentinel. "I think it's a positive step that we'll get to do that."

The Sentinel had filed a request to have an independent authority look at the photos. The Sentinel said it doesn't plan to publish the photos, but wants an outside expert to examine them as it looks into NASCAR safety.

The newspaper's request has outraged NASCAR fans and others who have deluged public officials and the newspaper with objections.

Meanwhile, in Tallahassee, a bill that would limit public access to autopsy photos won approval from a Senate committee.

The bill would make it a felony to release autopsy photos without a court order.

"Without making it a felony, you don't have a hammer to make sure someone is not going to do this," said Senate Majority Leader Jim King, R-Jacksonville, one of the sponsors of the bill. "There are people on the Internet now saying these photos are worth millions. Someone who is going for millions, would look beyond a misdemeanor conviction and a little slap on the wrist."

King said he believes the bill will keep the photos off of "rotten.com" and other similar Web sites.

Sen. Rod Smith, D-Gainesville, a former prosecutor, urged the committee to make a violation of the law a misdemeanor, the same penalty that exists for other violations of the state's public records law. Other members of the Senate's Criminal Justice Committee defeated his amendment.

But other changes suggested by Smith and Sen. Locke Burt, R-Ormond Beach, were accepted by the committee in an effort to forge a compromise between First Amendment advocates and the Earnhardt family.

Thom Rumberger, the lawyer who represents Mrs. Earnhardt, said one of the changes may not be acceptable to the Earnhardt family.

King's original bill allowed a judge to show the photos to anyone who could prove "upon a showing of clear and convincing need" to see them, but forbade copying or disseminating them.

Smith's amendment changed the language to allow the court to show the photos "upon a showing of good cause," a lesser standard.

Rumberger said Mrs. Earnhardt is very grateful for efforts to ban access to autopsy photos but doesn't think anyone should have access to any autopsy photos unless a crime was committed.

"Nobody should be able to use Dale Earnhardt's body to make money," Rumberger said.

"I've seen Nicole Brown's photo on an autopsy slab and Jon Benet Ramsey's photo on the internet. We know where these photos would be headed and the more people there are in there, the more opportunity there is for perverts . . . to put the stuff on the Net."

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