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Two sides agree on Earnhardt photos

A medical expert will examine the autopsy pictures before they are sealed. The Sentinel gets to ask him or her three questions.

Lawyers for Dale Earnhardt's widow and the Orlando Sentinel agreed Friday to let an independent expert review the autopsy photos of the racing legend before they are permanently sealed.

Within a week, court-appointed mediator John Upchurch will choose the medical expert who will view the photos, said Sentinel editor Tim Franklin.

Representatives of the Sentinel will be allowed to ask the expert three specific questions concerning Earnhardt's head injuries and cause of death. The photos will then be sealed.

"Mrs. Earnhardt is very pleased with this," said family spokesman Pete Himler.

In Tallahassee, lawmakers are considering cutting off the public's access to autopsy photos unless a judge can be convinced there's good cause to look at them.

Sen. Jim King, the Jacksonville Republican who is sponsoring the bill, said: "I am very pleased for both the Earnhardt family and for the Orlando Sentinel. I know that both sides have been contentious and now, in that particular issue, it's settled. But that doesn't lessen one iota the need for this proposed legislation."

In fact, he said, the settlement may make the legislation more acceptable because it would not be "reaching back" to affect one particular case.

"We would be establishing ground rules for whatever came after. This is not reaching back after the fact trying to do something," King said.

The agreement came after 18 hours of negotiations over two days.

"We never said we wanted copies of these," said Sentinel attorney David Bralow. "We wanted to decide what was the cause of Mr. Earnhardt's death."

The 49-year-old NASCAR driver was killed during a Feb. 18 crash at the Daytona 500. The Volusia County medical examiner's autopsy report said he died of a massive blow to the head.

The president of a Web site who joined a lawsuit seeking access to the photos was excluded from Friday's negotiations and was not part of the settlement. Michael Uribe, who runs web-sitecity.com, has promised to continue fighting for unfettered access to the photos.

Teresa Earnhardt had sued to stop the release of the autopsy photos, which under Florida law are public records. The judge agreed to temporarily block their release.

Mrs. Earnhardt's lawyer argued in court papers that releasing the photos will violate her privacy.

Sentinel executives have said repeatedly they have no intention of publishing the photos.

"The settlement enables the newspaper to pursue its independent investigation of NASCAR driver safety issues, but at the same time prevents the photos from being released publicly or published," Sentinel publisher Kathleen M. Waltz said.

Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, said the decision sets a bad precedent for other times when members of the public may seek certain government documents.

"What happens is that this will become the standard next time somebody wants to deny you or me access, they'll point to this case," Petersen said.

She also said, "The fact that we're limited to three questions is really disturbing and the fact that it's limited to a one-time inspection only. What if the medical expert raises more questions? Anyone else from that point forward is precluded from a right of inspection."

"I'm not suggesting that these photos should be thrown up on "ghouls.com,' as Sen. King likes to say," Petersen said. "I just find this limited, one-time . . . approach a significant erosion of the public's critically important right of oversight."

In Tallahassee, lawmakers are considering cutting off the public's access to autopsy photos unless a judge can be convinced there's good cause to look at them.

A bill to cut access to the photos is expected to come up for House debate on Wednesday. A similar Senate bill goes to committee Wednesday.

_ Times staff writer Shelby Oppel contributed to this report.

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