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Allow Orlando Sentinel to View Earnhardt Autopsy Photos, Says SPJ
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contacts: Ray Marcano, SPJ President, 937/225-2323 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman, 406/542-4400 or email@example.com
INDIANAPOLIS — Florida officials should allow the Orlando Sentinel to view autopsy photographs of Dale Earnhardt to further investigate the cause of the celebrity’s death, says the Society of Professional Journalists.
The Sentinel is seeking access to the pictures so a medical expert on head injuries can examine the autopsy photographs. The Daytona International Speedway’s doctor has said that the NASCAR driver’s fatal injuries were caused by seat-belt failure, but the Sentinel is seeking to determine if
Earnhardt’s life could have been saved by a head-restraint system used by other racing leagues. Three other NASCAR drivers have died in the past nine months from the same potentially preventable injury, basal skull fracture.
Earnhardt’s family has asked a judge to keep the medical examiner’s records confidential, and the Florida court system so far has supported that request. Florida’s state Sunshine Laws, however, clearly indicate that these photographs are public record.
"I believe the Sentinel is doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing — seeking truth independently of authority. It’s attempting to use publicly available information to do that job," said Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman and special projects coordinator for KPAX-TV in Montana. "Should the public hold the Sentinel to an ethical standard as to how it deals with the photos and the information they contain? Absolutely. But the public should not let a cult of celebrity impair legitimate access to information. It’s possible that race fans may end up thanking the Sentinel for its investigation."
One week prior to Earnhardt’s death at the Daytona 500, the Sentinel printed an investigative series on NASCAR safety that raised questions about NASCAR’s response to the recent deaths in the sport.
Orlando Sentinel Editor Tim Franklin said the newspaper now wants to view the autopsy photographs from Earnhardt’s death only for the purpose of continuing its investigation on NASCAR safety. The Sentinel will not, Franklin said, publish or copy the pictures for any reason.
"We’re sensitive to the Earnhardt family and their personal tragedy. We’ve bent over backwards to try to be sensitive to their position by agreeing not to publish or copy the photographs," Franklin said. "But there is a big national question here — the safety of NASCAR. Four drivers have died in nine months. We published an investigative series last month — before Dale Earnhardt’s tragic accident — showing that the first three deaths were all the result of the same type of possibly preventable injury. We believe the public and the racing community should know if Mr. Earnhardt died of the exact same injury. And, we believe there’s no question that the autopsy photos are public records under Florida law. Our investigation is about safety, not voyeurism."
Earnhardt’s widow, Teresa, issued a statement asking fans to express their disgust to lawmakers and the Orlando Sentinel over the access issue. The Orlando Sentinel reported March 6 that Florida lawmakers had received more than 12,000 e-mails demanding that the Sentinel be stopped.
"The Sentinel is trying to do what any other good news organization would do — independently get the facts and find answers that could shed light on why a man died," said Ray Marcano, SPJ president and assistant managing editor for production at the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News. "Without photos — which are clearly available under the law — the Sentinel can't do its job, and that robs the people of their right to know what happened."
The Florida Legislature now is attempting to rush through a state bill that denies public access to autopsy photographs.
"The State of Florida has flourished with one of the strongest open records laws in the country," said Robert Lystad, of Baker & Hostetler, SPJ’s First Amendment legal counsel. "It would be a travesty if that law is modified without proper deliberation. Bad laws can be made at any time, but all too frequently they are passed because of irrational fears motivated by an isolated, yet high-profile, event."
SPJ is one of many media organizations across the country that has offered its support for the Orlando Sentinel’s right to access the Earnhardt autopsy pictures. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the First Amendment Foundation, the Associated Press Sports Editors, the Miami Herald, the Tampa Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and Tampa’s WFLA TV are among the Sentinel’s many supporters.
"The citizens of Florida have long acknowledged the need to provide open access to autopsy records," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "Once his fans have finished grieving over the death of Dale Earnhardt, perhaps they will realize that an independent investigation into the cause of his death using public records may prevent this type of tragedy from occurring again."