Originally created 09/30/03

Newspaper takes Earnhardt autopsy photos case to high court



GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- A student-run newspaper asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday to overturn a Florida court decision that restricts access to autopsy photos - a case stemming from the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001.

The publisher of the Independent Florida Alligator contends that a law that was passed after the star driver's death and bars public access to the records is unconstitutional.

In July, Florida's Supreme Court declined to review a decision by an appeals court that upheld a trial court's ruling.

Attorney Tom Julin said the publisher, Campus Communications, believes the trial court violated the First Amendment because it declined the newspaper's request to review the photos.

"The Alligator was trying to get the records to find out if NASCAR was telling the truth. The trial court said that was not a good enough reason," Julin said.

The Alligator and other papers asked for the autopsy photos as questions arose over how Earnhardt died and whether better safety equipment might have saved him. They also objected to the way the new law restricted access to what had been public records.

Proponents said the measure protects families from seeing their relative's autopsy photos published or posted on the Internet. Under the 2001 law, those who view or copy autopsy photos without authorization can be fined $5,000.

Jon Mills, an attorney for Earnhardt's widow, Teresa Earnhardt, said he had expected Campus Communications' request, but thought the U.S. Supreme Court would back Florida court rulings on the law.

"The state of Florida and the Florida courts have always been generous on open records and the First Amendment," but they agree that autopsy photos should remain private, he said.

He has said the photos are not usually useful to outside parties in determining the cause of death, particularly when other autopsy records are available.