Newspaper editors back review of autopsy photos

The nation’s largest organization of newspaper editors voiced its support Thursday for efforts by the Orlando Sentinel to allow a medical expert to examine autopsy photos of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors, whose membership includes more than 500 top editors of newspapers around the country, also criticized Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida legislators who have filed a bill to block access to the photos. The editors said the bill could set "the dangerous precedent of closing autopsy records and doing so retroactively."

ASNE joined the Society of Professional Journalists, the First Amendment Foundation and more than a half-dozen newspapers from Florida and other metropolitan areas in saying the Sentinel has a clear right to view the photos of Earnhardt, who died during the Daytona 500 race. The newspaper has said it will not publish the photos but rather wants a medical expert to examine them to determine if better safety equipment could have saved Earnhardt’s life.

"ASNE believes the Sentinel, which has done extensive reporting on NASCAR safety issues, has a clear right to the material. Further, we believe the newspaper has framed its request in a proper, sensitive and caring way -- promising not to publish the photos and only to have an expert review them in an effort to make an independent judgment on cause of death," said ASNE President Richard Oppel.

"It would be exceedingly unfortunate if this reasonable request were to be used by politicians to decimate the important principle of open government and open public records." A bill backed by Bush, called the Earnhardt Family Protection Act, would make it a third-degree felony punishable by five years in prison and a $5,000 fine to release autopsy pictures without the approval of a circuit judge.

Bush’s spokeswoman, Katie Baur, said the ASNE’s position fails to respect the privacy wishes of Earnhardt’s widow, Teresa, and that’s the primary reason Bush supports closing access to the photos. "If they [the Sentinel] were trying to handle it in a proper and sensitive manner, why wouldn’t they respect his wife?" Baur asked.

Also Thursday, Sen. Jim King, a Jacksonville Republican whose district includes Daytona International Speedway, said he was trying to respond to news media objections to his bill. It will get its first hearing in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday.

"I’m trying desperately to get this bill into something that everybody wants," King said. He said he would add language giving families of the deceased the power to grant individuals or organizations access to their family member’s autopsy photographs.

Autopsy pictures are now considered public records under Florida law, though Teresa Earnhardt convinced a Volusia County circuit judge last month to order them sealed. When the Sentinel challenged that ruling, Teresa Earnhardt last Sunday urged NASCAR fans to e-mail protests to Bush and the Legislature. Since then, Bush’s office said it has received over 14,000 e-mails.

Sentinel Publisher Kathy Waltz said the paper appreciates the support of other news organizations in its efforts to determine whether Earnhardt’s death was preventable.

"I am encouraged by the support from prestigious groups such as the ASNE, but we are not trying to make this a First Amendment point as much as wanting to shed light on NASCAR safety," Waltz said. "That’s our motivation."

David Cox of the Tallahassee Bureau contributed to this story.

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