Newspaper, Earnhardt lawyers reach agreement on photos


Saturday, March 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6



DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ An independent medical expert will review autopsy photos of Dale Earnhardt before they're permanently sealed under an agreement reached between the racing legend's widow and the Orlando Sentinel.

Lawyers for Teresa Earnhardt and the newspaper negotiated for 18 hours over two days before reaching the compromise Friday.

Earnhardt had sued to block the Volusia County Medical Examiner from releasing the photos, which are public records under Florida law. The Sentinel wanted a medical expert to examine the photos as part of the newspaper's investigation into NASCAR safety.

The 49-year-old NASCAR driver was killed during a Feb. 18 crash at the Daytona 500. An autopsy said he died of a massive blow to the head.

``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 those seeking 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.

Earnhardt spokesman Peter Himler and her attorney, Thom Rumberger, said she was pleased with the agreement.

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 websitecity.com, has promised to continue fighting for unfettered access to the photos.

``I will stand my ground,'' he said earlier this week when asked what he would do if a settlement was reached without him.

Under the agreement, court-appointed mediator John Upchurch will choose within a week 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 questions concerning Earnhardt's head injuries and cause of death. The photos will then be sealed.

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.

Earnhardt's lawyer argued that releasing the photos will violate her privacy. Sentinel executives have said repeatedly they have no intention of publishing the photos.