Earnhardt Autopsy Law Challenge Continues


(AP) A state law restricting access to autopsy photos is hurting medical examiners and could hinder criminal investigations, according to affidavits filed in a challenge to the law.

The law was passed last year at the urging of the widow of Dale Earnhardt, who died in a crash on the final lap of February’s Daytona 500. It makes it a felony punishable by five years in prison and a $5,000 fine to view or copy autopsy photos without a court order.

The law is being challenged in Broward County by the Orlando Sentinel; its sister paper in Fort Lauderdale, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel; four Florida newspapers owned by The New York Times Co. — The Gainesville Sun, The Ledger in Lakeland, The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, The Star-Banner in Ocala — and The Tampa Tribune and its affiliate, WFLA-TV.

The case has been set for arguments Feb. 5 before Broward Circuit Judge Leroy Moe.

Sentinel attorneys cited examples of how the law is interfering with criminal and civil cases and medical education.

Stephen J. Nelson, chief medical examiner in Polk, Hardee, and Highlands counties and chairman of the Florida Medical Examiners Commission, said the law has had “an extremely detrimental effect” on state medical examiners, effectively prohibiting them from giving medical education lectures at national meetings.

“The result is not only to limit the ability of Florida medical examiners to advance professionally, but to limit the development of medical science as a whole,” Nelson said.

Sentinel lawyers also cited a report saying that autopsy photos were invaluable in disproving claims that death row inmate Frank Valdes’ fatal injuries were caused by him throwing himself off a bunk bed. With photos showing boot prints embedded on Valdes’ body, several prison guards came forward to say guards had beaten him. Four of them are on trial.

State Solicitor General Tom Warner said the law protects the right of family members to privacy, and he called the medical examiners’ complaints “a bunch of baloney.”

“It is not relevant whether this law is burdensome on medical examiners,” Warner said. “They are employees of the counties, and if the Legislature deems it reasonable to protect the privacy of Florida families, it is not up to them to challenge or complain about it.”

The Legislature passed the law less than a month after Earnhardt was killed after his car struck the wall. The force of the collision threw his head forward while his body was restrained by seat belts, snapping the base of his skull.

The Sentinel had sought a review of his autopsy photos by a safety expert to determine whether better equipment could have prevented the death. NASCAR has since mandated that its drivers use head-and-neck restraints that other motor sports have long required.

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