posted March 13, 2001 10:53 PM
Senate panel passes Earnhardt bill
By David Cox
March 13, 2001, 2:08 PM EST
TALLAHASSEE -- A bill that would require a judge's approval before anyone in Florida could view autopsy photos passed its first crucial test today.
The bill, prompted by the Orlando Sentinel's request for an independent medical expert to review the autopsy photos of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, passed unanimously in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
The panel concluded that a family's right to privacy should outweigh anyone elseís right to see the autopsy photographs of their loved one.
Sensing defeat, Sen. Locke Burt, R-Ormond Beach, withdrew a compromise that would have allowed the public to view such photos without having to get a judge's permission first. The compromise, however, would have required a judge to approve any request to copy, distribute or publish autopsy photographs.
The Sentinel has said repeatedly that it has no plans to print or copy Earnhardt's autopsy photos. The newspaper wants to let a head trauma expert review Earnhardt's photographs to see if the NASCAR legend may have lived had he worn a head restraint device when he crashed on the final lap of the Daytona 500.
Autopsy photographs are now subject to unfettered public inspection under Florida's open records law, which lawmakers are trying to change at the request of Earnhardt's widow, Teresa. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, requires anyone wanting to view autopsy photographs to first convince a judge there is good reason for seeing them. The bill also makes it a felony for someone to illegally give someone else access to autopsy photographs.
Burt, who proposed the compromise, acknowledged it would be difficult to pass now. That's because King, the Senate Republican leader, is one of the most powerful lawmakers in the Capitol.
While acknowledging that the Sentinel may have a legitimate reason to see Earnhardt's photos, King fears that others who would splash the photographs on the Internet or print them in tabloids would have the same access to them.
"Though we would fiercely defend the open records law, there is a balance between a family's right to privacy versus the publicís right to know," King told the committee. Later he added: "But by this legislation I've cut out the rotten.coms and the goul.com Web sites from getting the photos."
The bill passed unanimously and moves on to another Senate committee. A companion measure in the House has not been scheduled for a hearing yet.
This was in todays Orlando Sentinel.