March 29, 2001
Florida restricts access to autopsy photos
By MIKE BRANOM, Associated Press Writer
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Standing beside Dale Earnhardt's widow, Gov. Jeb Bush signed a bill Thursday to keep autopsy photos closed to the public unless a judge approves their release.
The law sprang from an outcry over the Orlando Sentinel's request to see Earnhardt's autopsy photos. Teresa Earnhardt led the protests, saying she wanted to protect her family's privacy.
The measure, passed unanimously in the Senate on Thursday, makes it a felony to improperly release the records, with a maximum sentence of five years in jail and a $5,000 fine.
Bush thanked the Legislature for handling the bill in what he called record speed.
"A tribute to the speed of Dale Earnhardt," the governor said.
The new law is certain to be tested in the courts because such photos had been open as part of Florida's Sunshine Law, the most liberal public-records rule in the country.
Dale Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion, died in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500 last month. Teresa Earnhardt won a court order to keep the autopsy photos private.
A day later, attorneys for the Orlando Sentinel went to court and, citing the state's open-records law, asked that the newspaper's medical expert be allowed to look at the autopsy shots.
News organizations claim the bill goes too far in protecting a family's right to privacy by forcing anyone to get a judge's permission before autopsy photographs could be viewed.
They also say the bill cannot be applied to cases where individuals or organizations have already filed requests for autopsy photographs even though the bill is designed to stop such requests.
Similar legislation is awaiting the governor's signature in Georgia, is under consideration in South Carolina and was introduced earlier this week in Louisiana.
The measure's sponsor, Sen. Jim King, said it lets families see the photos, and establishes a hierarchy within a family to determine who has the final say over them.
The law is 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 to 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.