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Allow Orlando Sentinel to View Earnhardt Autopsy Photos, Says SPJ


Contacts: Ray Marcano, SPJ President, 937/225-2323 or rmarcano@spj.org; Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman, 406/542-4400 or ian@kpax.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."

The Orlando Sentinel’s official statement

March 4, 2001, 5:26 PM EST

We express our sympathy to Teresa Earnhardt and to her family. We have never once sought to publish the autopsy photographs; we have never once sought to copy the autopsy photographs.

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. We want our expert to examine the failed seat belt theory.

We don’t wish to cause the Earnhardt family any pain or concern. And we have a new offer that we believe will alleviate any concern about the photographs being widely released. From the start, we have been in close contact with representatives of the Earnhardt estate. At the beginning of the process we were receptive to the estate’s proposals to alleviate any concern that Ms. Earnhardt may have.

The first proposal from the lawyers of the Estate was that we agree to a court order preventing any copying of the photographs but allowing the public to see them. We agreed without hesitation.

The second proposal came from the Sentinel — asking that we limit the court order to only allowing the Sentinel to view, but not take possession of, any of the photographs.

As we heard of Ms. Earnhardt’s continued discomfort, we proposed that we limit the court order to only having the Sentinel’s medical expert view the photographs.

We reaffirm that we are satisfied that the Court order precludes any copying and we will not ask the Court to lift that restriction.

Today we are inviting both representatives of the Earnhardt estate and the Court itself to accompany our medical expert when he reviews the photographs to ensure that no copy could ever be made.

Newspapers are not always popular; sometimes newspapers have to ask hard questions; this is one of those times. But our mission to the community is to contribute to the debate on how race-car driving can be made safer. We have already contributed to the debate with our six-month investigation into race-car safety and the cause of death of three other drivers in less than a year. We think having our medical expert review the photographs — without any copying or publication — could help foster the debate on new ways to make racing safer.

Copyright © 2001, Orlando Sentinel

Media organizations support the Sentinel (press release from the Orlando Sentinel)

F. Ashley Allen
Corporate Communications & Planning Director
Orlando Sentinel Communications
633 North Orange Ave.
Orlando FL 32801
(407) 420-5794
(407) 420-6258 fax

Earnhardt Autopsy Photos: National and Local Media Organizations Show Support of Orlando Sentinel’s Pursuit of Examination by Medical Expert

ORLANDO, Fla. (March 6, 2001) 6:00 p.m. EST — Several national news organizations, including the nation’s largest journalism association, and other metropolitan newspapers today stated their support of the Orlando Sentinel’s request for a head trauma expert to view the autopsy photos of Dale Earnhardt.

"We are very sympathetic to the Earnhardt family but we believe there’s national interest about the question of NASCAR safety," said Timothy A. Franklin, vice president and editor of the Sentinel. "In less than nine months, four NASCAR drivers have died. I believe our role is to provide as much credible and independent information as possible about the deaths of Mr. Earnhardt and the other drivers."

The cause of Earnhardt’s death is in question, so the newspaper asked a Volusia County judge to allow a medical expert hired by the Sentinel to review the photographs in an effort to confirm the exact cause of death. The newspaper has no intention of publishing the photos, nor would copies of the photos be made. The Sentinel’s request comes after a 6-month investigative report regarding NASCAR safety standards and the death of three NASCAR drivers in less than nine months. The investigative series published in the Sentinel several days prior to Earnhardt’s tragic death.

Earlier today numerous newspapers, television stations, and national news and professional organizations came forward with their support of the newspaper’s right to access the photos. At the time of this release the Society of Professional Journalists, the Reporters Committee for the First Amendment, the First Amendment Foundation and the Associated Press Sports Editors and the have indicated their support. Newspapers in support include the Miami Herald, Tampa Tribune, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and The Baltimore Sun. WFLA TV in Tampa, Fla. has also come forward in support.

"The Sentinel is trying to answer questions surrounding the death of Dale Earnhardt," said Tim Burke, president of the Associated Press Sports Editors. "That’s good journalism, even under difficult circumstances. In no way has this newspaper recklessly pursued this story. Rather, the Sentinel is trying to advance the story for its readers while being sensitive to the Earnhardt’s family’s concerns."

Ray Marcano, President of the Society of Professional Journalists, frames the larger picture. "What’s getting lost in this debate is whether government has a right to withhold records that are clearly public. And the answer is simple: Government does not and should not even try." The Society of Professional Journalists is the nation’s largest journalism organization dedicated to improving and protecting journalism.

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