Fla. Nixes Autopsy Pix Access

Dale Earnhardt (3) hits the wall while as his car is hit by Ken Schrader (36) during the Daytona 500.
Spurred on by fans of racing star Dale Earnhardt, the Florida Senate voted 40-0 Thursday to close autopsy photos from public record.

The bill, which has already passed the Florida House, now goes to Gov. Jeb Bush. He was expected to sign it later Thursday with Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, looking on. She led the public drive for the bill, saying she wanted to protect her family's privacy.

The new law would bar public access to all autopsy photos unless a judge approves the release. Such photos have been open records as part of Florida's Sunshine Law.

Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion, died in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500 in February. A day after his widow won a court order to keep the autopsy photos private, the Orlando Sentinel went to court and, citing the state's open-records law, asked that their medical expert be allowed to look at the autopsy shots.

During the ensuing legal battle of access to the photos, racing fans bombarded the offices of Bush, legislative leaders and the Sentinel with thousands of e-mails, letters and telephone calls, protesting efforts by the media to see the photos.

"I never knew Dale Earnhardt, but through this bill, I've gotten to know his family and his wife," said the measure's sponsor, Sen. Jim King.

But King said he was more moved by the letters and calls from family members of ordinary people who didn't know that their autopsy photos could be made public.

Similar legislation is awaiting the governor's signature in Georgia and is still under consideration in South Carolina.

The Florida measure would prevent members of the public and media from viewing anyone's autopsy photos unless they can convince a judge there is good cause to see them.

Bush had already made room on his Thursday schedule to sign the bill. Although Teresa Earnhardt was expected to attend the signing, poor weather had prevented her arrival by midmorning.

King said the measure allows families to see those photos, and establishes a hierarchy within a family to establish who has the final say over them.

If the bill becomes law it would be retroactive, although the Sentinel's effort to view Earnhardt's autopsy photos was handled in mediation. A court-appointed expert has reviewed them and will issue a report that will go the widow and the newspaper.

The newspaper has said it doesn't want to publish the photos, but wanted an expert to look at them as it reports on safety in NASCAR.

The president of a Web site and an independent student newspaper at the University of Florida, the Independent Florida Alligator, are pursuin their own court cases for access to the Florida photos. A hearing for the Alligator and Websitecity.com is set for April 5.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors, a group of more than 500 of the top newspaper editors nationwide, and the Society of Professional Journalists, support the push to get the photos so a head trauma expert can make an independent determination of the cause of the auto racer's death.

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