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Friday, March 02, 2001

Earnhardt autopsy file hearing rescheduled

Staff Writer

DAYTONA BEACH -- Dale Earnhardt's widow is refusing to give up her fight to keep the NASCAR driver's autopsy photos confidential.

Earlier this week, attorneys for Teresa Earnhardt and the Orlando Sentinel negotiated an agreement that would allow the public to view but not copy Earnhardt's autopsy photos without a court hearing.

But Daytona Beach attorney Lawrence H. Bartlett said Thursday that Teresa Earnhardt disapproved of the agreement and wants the autopsy file kept closed. A court hearing previously scheduled for Thursday was rescheduled for 10 a.m. March 8 at the City Island Courthouse Annex.

The following days will give Teresa "breathing space that allows her to think about it more," said Bartlett, whose law firm, Crotty & Bartlett, also represents Daytona International Speedway.

Teresa Earnhardt is considering attending next week's hearing, he said.

Sentinel attorney David Bralow said the newspaper's medical experts hope to view the photos and obtain more information about the crash.

"By doing so, we can have and participate in what we think is a national debate as to whether there are safety issues in NASCAR," Bralow said. "We don't want to publish (the photos). We have never indicated that we care about taking them out of the office."

The issue of whether the autopsy file is a matter of public record arose last week when Teresa Earnhardt filed a lawsuit to stop Volusia County from releasing medical photos of her husband taken by the Medical Examiner's Office after his fatal wreck in the Daytona 500.

Circuit Judge Joseph G. Will granted an injunction, saying the photos carried no news value and could cause additional grief to the family.

NASCAR officials refused to comment on the Sentinel's reasons for wanting the autopsy photos.

"We're trying to find answers and share those answers with the garage area, those drivers and crew chiefs and team members who have to prepare cars on a weekly basis," NASCAR spokesman John Griffin said.


Griffin added that NASCAR was not taking an active role in the attempt to prevent distribution of the photos, but did support the widow.

"We're certainly sensitive to anyone in the NASCAR family who is hesitant about the photos appearing publicly," Griffin said.


This isn't the first instance of legal wrangling over the release of autopsy photos. The St. Petersburg Times filed a lawsuit to obtain autopsy photos of a Scientologist who died while being treated by church members following a traffic accident.

The church argued the photos could jeopardize its right to a fair trial in a wrongful death lawsuit. Last July, the 2nd District Court of Appeal denied the Church of Scientology's attempts to keep the photos sealed.

In September 1999, a poetry magazine won a legal battle to obtain autopsy photos of Mexican citizens who died illegally crossing into the United States. The medical examiner in Tucson, Ariz., argued releasing the photos would violate the privacy rights of the deceased and their families.

A Pima County Superior Court judge ruled the photos were public record.

Also Thursday, as a matter of public record, the Volusia County Medical Examiner's Office released the results of toxicology tests from Earnhardt's autopsy. Blood and urine tests turned up no alcohol or illegal drugs, a spokesman said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.