Earnhardt's Widow Pleads for Privacy

L A S  V E G A S, March 5, 2001 -- The widow of racing great Dale Earnhardtpleaded for public support Sunday in helping the family keep thedriver's autopsy private.

"This is the first time I've spoken in public since we've lostDale," Teresa Earnhardt said, reading from a statement."Honestly, I'm not very comfortable being here. It's too soon. Butthis issue is of vital importance — not just to my family — but toanyone ever faced with being exploited after losing a loved one."

Later in the afternoon, The Orlando Sentinel released astatement reiterating its sympathy to the Earnhardt family, butfurther explaining its request to see the autopsy report for adeeper investigation into how exactly Earnhardt died.

"Newspapers are not always popular," the statement said."Sometimes newspapers have to ask hard questions; this is one ofthose times."

Hearing to Be Held

Earnhardt died instantly of head injuries on Feb. 18 in alast-lap crash at the Daytona 500.

His wife sued Volusia County in Florida on Feb. 22 to stoprelease of its medical examiner's autopsy photos taken after thefatal wreck. The next day, an Orlando Sentinel reporter made apublic records request asking for "any and all photographs" ofEarnhardt.

Judge Joseph Will issued a temporary injunction. He said thephotos have no "bona fide newsworthiness" and could cause thefamily "additional anguish and grief."

A hearing on whether to make the injunction permanent wasoriginally set for last Thursday but was postponed for one weekbecause of a scheduling conflict.

Widow: Stop the Presses

Teresa Earnhardt pleaded at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for anyone"who feels strongly as we do, to let your voices be heard."

She requested that the public contact the speaker of the FloridaHouse of Representatives, the president of the Florida Senate andFlorida Gov. Jeb Bush, asking them to "protect the privacy ofcitizens by preventing publication of autopsy photos."

Mrs. Earnhardt sat alongside a solemn Dale Earnhardt Jr. whilequietly reading her statement. She left without answeringquestions. Her only previous public appearance since her husband'sdeath came on Feb. 22 in Charlotte, N.C., at an invitation-onlymemorial service.

Tim Franklin, the Sentinel editor, said Sunday the newspaperwanted the photos so a head trauma expert could make an independentdetermination of the cause of death.

"We want to have a national expert review these photographs todetermine whether the physical evidence is consistent with NASCAR'sexplanation of Dale Earnhardt's death," the newspaper's statementsaid. "We want our expert to examine the failed seatbelt theory."

NASCAR has hired a consultant and is investigating the death. Abroken left lap belt was found on the floor of the batteredChevrolet after the accident and could have been responsible forEarnhardt's death.

Newspaper: Seeking Answers

Sentinel attorney David Bralow has said the newspaper has nodesire to cause Teresa Earnhardt more pain. The Sentinel's editorshave said they have no intention of publishing the photos.

However, "if these photos will help elucidate the nature ofwhat exactly went wrong or what happened to Dale Earnhardt, thenthe public is served," Bralow said.

Bralow added that the newspaper's latest offer to the Earnhardtswould allow only the Sentinel's medical expert to view the autopsyphotos without copying them. Also, representatives from thedriver's estate and the court could accompany the expert, if sodesired.

Under Florida's public records law, autopsy reports andphotographs are public record unless they are part of an activecriminal investigation.

Bralow said the Sentinel's request for access to the autopsyphotographs was not unusual, but Will's ruling denying access was.

"I think the general community needs to understand that I canwalk into any medical examiner's office in any county in the stateof Florida and look at any autopsy photograph," Bralow said.

Teresa Earnhardt said the request by the Sentinel for theautopsy photos added to the family's trauma.

"In fact, I have not even had time to caringly unpack Dale'ssuitcase from Daytona, let alone have time to grieve for him," shesaid. "The main reason is because we have been caught up in anunexpected whirlwind as a result of efforts to gain access to theautopsy photographs of Dale.

"We can't believe and are saddened that anyone would invade ourprivacy during this time of grief. I want to let you know that ifaccess to the photos is allowed, others will demand them, too. Andmake no mistake, sooner or later the photos will end up unprotectedand published … and most certainly on the Internet."