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Dale Earnhardt's widow makes plea for privacy

Teresa Earnhardt calls her husband's autopsy photos ''humiliating, disgusting and negative'' in testimony Tuesday.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 13, 2001


Teresa Earnhardt calls her husband's autopsy photos "humiliating, disgusting and negative" in testimony Tuesday.

DAYTONA BEACH -- The widow of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt sternly defended her right to privacy Tuesday, saying the release of her husband's autopsy photographs would cause further anguish and pain to her and her family.

Teresa Earnhardt, widow of the driver known as The Intimidator, occasionally appeared irritated during an hour and 45 minutes of testimony in a hearing into whether the photos can be made public.

"The photos are humiliating, disgusting and negative," the 42-year-old said. "They could be nothing but harmful and painful to my family, my company, our fans . . . anybody."

Her testimony came on the second day of a hearing before Circuit Judge Joseph Will that will decide whether The Independent Florida Alligator and a DeLand-based Web site should win access to the late driver's autopsy photos.

"She was able to articulate very, very well her position and obviously our position," said Thom Rumberger, a lawyer for the Earnhardt family. "She's a very poised woman. Nobody buffaloed or pushed her into anything."

Final arguments begin at 9:30 a.m. today. Will, an elected official in the county where NASCAR and parent company International Speedway Corporation are headquartered, could rule by the end of the day.

Attorneys for the student-run newspaper in Gainesville and websitecity.com want the photos in hopes of determining whether investigators and the Volusia County medical examiner did an adequate investigation into Earnhardt's February death at the Daytona 500.

A law passed by the Legislature this year, with Mrs. Earnhardt's support, makes it a felony to release autopsy photos without a judge's approval. The media attorneys hope to convince Will that there is an adequate reason for the public to see the photographs.

The newspaper's attorney expects to appeal if he loses.

"I feel confident that we will win this case," said Tom Julin, attorney for the Alligator. "I'm not sure that we will win this case in this court. I think Judge Will feels a very strong sympathy for the Earnhardt family and I think that he wants to protect that family, and that that's the overriding thing pushing him to vote in their favor."

In his questioning, Julin tried to build a case that NASCAR influenced the driver's widow to file a lawsuit sealing the photographs four days after her husband's death. But most of Julin's inquiries were met with obvious agitation from Mrs. Earnhardt and numerous objections from her lawyers.

Nobody should be allowed to view the photos, and it is unnecessary to release them, Teresa Earnhardt said.

"It would just be the most horrific, traumatic thing that I could imagine anybody having to go through. It's humiliating. You never know that any day they might pop up on the TV, pop up at the grocery store or pop up at school," she said.

She spoke of several conversations with family friend and NASCAR president Mike Helton following the accident, but she insisted neither Helton nor anybody with NASCAR persuaded her to the lawsuit sealing the photos. Her husband was the fourth NASCAR driver to die from a basal skull fracture since May 2000.

"It's obvious that she is still a part of the NASCAR family," Julin said after Tuesday's hearing. "She's not about to turn on NASCAR and accuse it of doing bad things because that would seriously impact her livelihood."

Among the other witnesses Tuesday were relatives of Rodney Orr and Neil Bonnett, NASCAR drivers who died in separate crashes prior to the 1994 Daytona 500.

Those two drivers' autopsy photographs were published recently on Michael Uribe's Web site. And while Bonnett's daughter, Kristen, cannot forget the images on the internet, Orr's father has not seen the photos and wishes to never do so.

The director of emergency medical services at Daytona International, who worked on Dale Earnhardt following the crash, also testified.

Dr. Steve Bohannon was the only person to view the autopsy photos before they were sealed on Feb. 22. He did so to satisfy his own curiosity of the exact cause of Dale Earnhardt's death.

Teresa Earnhardt called the doctor and to ask his opinion on the autopsy photos five days after the accident.

"She asked me if it was one of my loved ones, if I would want them released," Bohannon said. "I said, 'No.' "

Recent coverage

Autopsy pictures law is upheld (June 12, 2001)

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