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  • Legislature 2001

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    Autopsy photo bill quickly passed by House

    The bill severely limits access to autopsy photos. An identical bill in the Senate is expected to advance rapidly.

    By LUCY MORGAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- With little debate or opposition, a bill that would close public access to autopsy photos passed the Florida House on Thursday night, 91-12.

    Rep. Randy Johnson, R-Celebration, one of the sponsors of the bill, denounced the state's news media for seeking access to the autopsy photos of NASCAR racing hero Dale Earnhardt as he urged approval of the bill.

    "Imagine dealing with a lost husband and trying to deal with the ghoulish requests of the media for autopsy photos," Johnson said as he described the plight of Earnhardt's widow after the Orlando Sentinel requested the photos.

    The request set off howls of outrage from racing fans around the nation who sent thousands of e-mails to Gov. Jeb Bush and members of the Legislature in protest.

    Johnson, Senate Majority Leader Jim King and other legislators quickly cobbled together bills to cut off access to autopsy photos. The bills are on a fast track.

    The House bill approved Thursday is identical to one pending in the Senate. It would allow access to autopsy photos only when permitted by a judge after a showing of good cause by an interested party.

    If it becomes law it would be retroactive, although the Sentinel's effort to view Earnhardt's autopsy photos is being handled in mediation.

    In Daytona Beach on Thursday, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Duke University was chosen to review the autopsy photos.

    Barry Myers was picked by special master John Upchurch, who last week helped work out a settlement between Earnhardt's widow, who wanted the photos sealed, and the Sentinel, which wanted its own medical expert to review the pictures.

    An attorney for the newspaper said he was pleased with the selection of Myers, who has written extensively on crash injuries.

    "The real winners are the public because it looks like we're going to get answers to our questions," said David Bralow. "We couldn't be happier."

    Myers, reached at the North Carolina school, was reticent about his role.

    "I'm pleased that the court has contacted me, and I'll do my best," he said. "I don't have any opinions beyond what I'm asked to do. My only comment is that I'll do my best to respond to the needs of the court and the mediator."

    Myers has no ties to either NASCAR, the Sentinel or the newspaper's parent Tribune Co., said Thom Rumberger, an attorney for Teresa Earnhardt.

    "From his credentials, he sounds pretty snazzy," Rumberger said. "He meets all the criteria."

    Earlier this week, Bralow expressed concern about the agreement after learning that a NASCAR physician had reviewed the photos before a circuit judge sealed them at Mrs. Earnhardt's request.

    Bralow and lawyers for Mrs. Earnhardt met Thursday for a second round of mediation. But after Myers was chosen as the expert, the talks ended with last Friday's settlement still in place.

    As the legal battle has continued to play out in Daytona Beach, newspaper editorial boards and First Amendment supporters have voiced their opposition to the bills pending in the Legislature. The opponents say the photos should be available for public inspection under Florida's long tradition of open records.

    In the House Thursday, Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, tried to win approval of a last-minute amendment that would have left the photos accessible for viewing, but not copying, at the discretion of medical examiners.

    "We ought not to pass laws in the wake of a tragedy," Gelber argued. "I know there are ghouls out there, but sometimes there is a good reason why they need to be reviewed."

    But the House rejected the amendment, 72-29.

    Moments later the lawmakers voted overwhelmingly in favor of the more restrictive bill.

    The vote came after Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Milton, read an anguished letter from the mother of a 6-year-old child who died in a fire in 1993.

    "I want to know my son's pictures are not available to be seen," Miller said as he concluded the letter.

    The 12 members who voted against the bill were Reps. Susan Bucher, D-West Palm Beach; Anne Gannon, D-Delray Beach; Ken Gottlieb, D-Miramar; Sally Heyman, D-North Miami Beach; Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa; Cindy Lerner, D-Miami; Perry McGriff, D-Gainesville; Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg; Nan Rich, D-Sunrise; Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale; Mark Weissman, D-Deerfield Beach; and Gelber.

    The bill is likely to be heard by the Senate and sent to the governor, who supports it, by the end of next week.

    A similar bill received preliminary approval Wednesday in a House subcommittee of South Carolina's legislature. Lawmakers agreed to the concept that autopsy photos should be available for inspection in some cases, but not for copying or publication.

    Gov. Jim Hodges had called for the legislation earlier this month, reacting to developments in the Earnhardt case.

    -- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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