L A S V E G A S, March 5, 2001 -- The widow of racing great Dale Earnhardt pleaded for public support Sunday in helping the family keep the driver's autopsy private.
"This is the first time I've spoken in public since we've lost Dale," Teresa Earnhardt said, reading from a statement. "Honestly, I'm not very comfortable being here. It's too soon. But this issue is of vital importance — not just to my family — but to anyone ever faced with being exploited after losing a loved one."
Later in the afternoon, The Orlando Sentinel released a statement reiterating its sympathy to the Earnhardt family, but further explaining its request to see the autopsy report for a deeper investigation into how exactly Earnhardt died.
"Newspapers are not always popular," the statement said. "Sometimes newspapers have to ask hard questions; this is one of those times."
Hearing to Be Held
Earnhardt died instantly of head injuries on Feb. 18 in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500.
His wife sued Volusia County in Florida on Feb. 22 to stop release of its medical examiner's autopsy photos taken after the fatal wreck. The next day, an Orlando Sentinel reporter made a public records request asking for "any and all photographs" of Earnhardt.
Judge Joseph Will issued a temporary injunction. He said the photos have no "bona fide newsworthiness" and could cause the family "additional anguish and grief."
A hearing on whether to make the injunction permanent was originally set for last Thursday but was postponed for one week because 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 Florida House of Representatives, the president of the Florida Senate and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, asking them to "protect the privacy of citizens by preventing publication of autopsy photos."
Mrs. Earnhardt sat alongside a solemn Dale Earnhardt Jr. while quietly reading her statement. She left without answering questions. Her only previous public appearance since her husband's death came on Feb. 22 in Charlotte, N.C., at an invitation-only memorial service.
Tim Franklin, the Sentinel editor, said Sunday the newspaper wanted the photos so a head trauma expert could make an independent determination of the cause of death.
"We want to have a national expert review these photographs to determine whether the physical evidence is consistent with NASCAR's explanation of Dale Earnhardt's death," the newspaper's statement said. "We want our expert to examine the failed seatbelt theory."
NASCAR has hired a consultant and is investigating the death. A broken left lap belt was found on the floor of the battered Chevrolet after the accident and could have been responsible for Earnhardt's death.
Newspaper: Seeking Answers
Sentinel attorney David Bralow has said the newspaper has no desire to cause Teresa Earnhardt more pain. The Sentinel's editors have said they have no intention of publishing the photos.
However, "if these photos will help elucidate the nature of what exactly went wrong or what happened to Dale Earnhardt, then the public is served," Bralow said.
Bralow added that the newspaper's latest offer to the Earnhardts would allow only the Sentinel's medical expert to view the autopsy photos without copying them. Also, representatives from the driver's estate and the court could accompany the expert, if so desired.
Under Florida's public records law, autopsy reports and photographs are public record unless they are part of an active criminal investigation.
Bralow said the Sentinel's request for access to the autopsy photographs was not unusual, but Will's ruling denying access was.
"I think the general community needs to understand that I can walk into any medical examiner's office in any county in the state of Florida and look at any autopsy photograph," Bralow said.
Teresa Earnhardt said the request by the Sentinel for the autopsy photos added to the family's trauma.
"In fact, I have not even had time to caringly unpack Dale's suitcase from Daytona, let alone have time to grieve for him," she said. "The main reason is because we have been caught up in an unexpected whirlwind as a result of efforts to gain access to the autopsy photographs of Dale.
"We can't believe and are saddened that anyone would invade our privacy during this time of grief. I want to let you know that if access to the photos is allowed, others will demand them, too. And make no mistake, sooner or later the photos will end up unprotected and published … and most certainly on the Internet."