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Student-run paper seeks to see photos

Published Sep. 9, 2005

The newspaper joins a dispute over records of Dale Earnhardt's autopsy.

A student-run newspaper has stepped into the dispute over the release of Dale Earnhardt's autopsy photos, filing a court motion stating its desire to see the pictures.

The Gainesville-based Independent Florida Alligator, which is run by University of Florida students but is not an official university publication, filed a motion to intervene in a Daytona Beach court on Friday.

Dale Earnhardt was killed Feb. 18 in a crash at the Daytona 500.

A settlement between Earnhardt's widow and the Orlando Sentinel and a bill proposed in the state Legislature limiting access and barring publication of the photos are not in the public's best interest, said Alligator editor Jason Brown.

"It is very unlikely that we print them, but we'd like to decide for ourselves rather than have the courts decide for us" said Brown, 23, of Pembroke Pines. "We'd like the courts to stick by what the law is."

Florida law currently does not restrict access to autopsy reports or photos.

A lawyer for the Alligator said providing access to the autopsy photos would allow others to review the medical examiners' findings, or possibly help find a safety device that could have saved Earnhardt's life.

"It is not the prurient interest that is driving this," Miami-based attorney Tom Julin said.

Teresa Earnhardt's lawyers reached an out-of-court agreement Friday with the lawyers for the Sentinel, which had sought to review the autopsy photos of the NASCAR legend but pledged not to publish them.

Court-appointed mediator John Upchurch will choose a medical expert to view the photos. 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 had sued to block the release of the photos, and a Volusia County judge granted the request. She says releasing the photos would violate the family's privacy.

Also, a bill that would require a judge's approval for the public to see autopsy photos has won approval from a state Senate committee and is moving toward a vote in both chambers of the Legislature.

Dr. Steve Bohannon, director of emergency medical services at Daytona International Speedway, examined the photos for 30 minutes on Feb. 21, said Dave Byron, Volusia County spokesman.

That examination was one day before Mrs. Earnhardt sued the county to stop release of the photos and two days before the Sentinel made its public records request for "any and all photographs."

_ Times staff writer Kevin Kelly contributed to this report.