Autopsy Photos Stay Private

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A judge refused to release photos Wednesday of race car driver Dale Earnhardt's autopsy, agreeing with his widow that making the pictures public would cause the family pain.

"In this particular case, the release constitutes a serious invasion (of privacy) of the highest degree. There is no question, it's harmful, it's unspeakable," said Circuit Judge Joseph Will.

He ruled on a request made by a student newspaper and Web site who sought access to the photos. They said they wanted to determine whether investigators did an adequate job of determining what killed Earnhardt.

Will's decision capped a four-month legal battle by Teresa Earnhardt to keep the photos out of the public realm. Her husband died in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500.

Lawyers for the Independent Florida Alligator, a student-run newspaper at the University of Florida, and of DeLand had argued that a review of the photos could help prevent future racing fatalities.

"We want a safer future where a great good has been served," said Tom Julin, an attorney for The Alligator. "We want more information because we want to stop these deaths from happening."

But the widow testified during the three-day hearing that she has tried to stop release of the photos to spare her family "painful emotional distress."

"The photographs are humiliating, disgusting and negative," she said. "That could be nothing but harmful and painful to anyone involved with my family, my company, our fans, anyone."

Under a new law passed after Earnhardt's death, members of the public must convince a judge that there is good reason to release autopsy photos.

On Monday, Will upheld the constitutionality of the law, which forbids copying or inspecting autopsy photos and records. Breaking the law would be a third-degree felony with a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Lawyers for the Earnhardt family had also asked the judge to make permanent the injunction barring access to the photos.

Will declined to rule on that issue, saying, "This is not a place for a circuit judge to go."

A permanent injunction was opposed by lawyers for the newspaper and Web site, in addition to the Orlando Sentinel and Volusia County.

"Only the Legislature has the authority to grant an exemption," county attorney Dan Eckert said. "Any balance of privacy concerns have to be done by the Legislature. It's not appropriate for administrative officials to do so."

Teresa Earnhardt sued to block the release of the photos four days after her husband's death on Feb. 18.

NASCAR officials said a broken seat belt may have contributed to the death, comments disputed by paramedics at the scene and the seat belt's manufacturer.

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