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Judge Rules in Favor of Teresa Earnhardt

Aired June 13, 2001 - 17:30   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: A decision is expected any time on whether Dale Earnhardt's autopsy photos will be made public. A judge in Daytona Beach, Florida is expected to rule on whether the photos can be released to a University of Florida newspaper and a Web site. Let's listen in now. The judge is about to speak.

JUDGE JOSEPH WILL, VOLUSIA COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT: ... before I announce the ruling. It has truly been a pleasure to work with all the lawyers in this case. You know that that's not gratuitous for me, like it was with you. I don't have to say it.


WILL: But I really like to think that when we become involved in cases like this, non-jury cases where we debate the law, that we're all on kind of a journey to find a way to get the right thing done, and still do it within the law and the Constitution. Sometimes that's really hard to do. And I don't think there has ever been assembled in this room a group of people more competent to do that, or a group of people that have made it more enjoyable. This has -- for me, this has truly been an exciting and enjoyable philosophical venture.

I know it's not that way to the parties. It's always different for parties. It's hard for us to tell you that we're excited as lawyers to do these things, but we are. And this has been a true joy. I have a tremendous amount of respect for all of the lawyers that are assembled here, and I'm sorry I can't find a ruling that's going to please each and every lawyer in the room. It just can't happen in every case, and I'm sorry that I'm not going to be able to do that.

It's also been kind of exciting to have the press here. That doesn't happen very often in our circuit court, and it's been kind of exciting. And it speaks very well, yet again, in the state of Florida, that our courts are open, that they're transparent, as Mr. Candia (ph) says. And that everyone is free to watch what we do and see how we do it. It makes us proud that we can do that, and I'm proud to live in this fine state.

There was mention in our case that celebrity had something to do with it. was a silly notion when it was mentioned, but I thought that it might be worthy of mention again. I hope all of you know that this case could just as easily have involved the autopsy photographs of the man who lives under the bridge, or Mr. Uribe's mother, or anyone else, and the issues would have been exactly the same to this court and would have been presented exactly the same by all of the lawyers here, all of whom I am truly proud to work with.

This case is simply about whether the law is going to be able to grope its way to protect something as dear to each of us as our privacy. Nothing more, nothing less. It has nothing do with NASCAR. It has to do with Mrs. Earnhardt and her family, and all of our families, really, and our relationship with those people who invade our privacy without any good reason.

It certainly has nothing to do with the ruling of the court, but just one more observation, as somebody who's been at the heart of this Earnhardt hurricane. It has been a true pleasure to meet parties with the unbelievable resolve of their convictions. That resolve has been something to see. It's pretty obvious that spunk and grit don't have to be genetic. the "Independent Alligator" and Mr. Uribe are the public. The media such as the "Independent Alligator" gets nothing greater than any of the rest of the public under our law, because there simply isn't anything more to get. Mr. Candia's (ph) reference, again to our transparent system, is well taken.

And the point by Judge Dauks, (ph) in the Mineola (ph) case is also well taken. Invasions of privacy can be indecent, outrageous and intolerable. Let's analyze our case. The first of the elements first, or the easiest of the elements first, and that is the seriousness of the intrusion into this family's right to privacy. There is no question in the mind of court that the violation of the privacy of this family is significant. The extent to which Mrs. Earnhardt has gone on behalf of her family because of her fear of such harm is amazing.

The harm which could come to Mrs. Earnhardt alone is sufficient under the testimony in this particular case to consider the seriousness of the invasion to be of the highest degree. When her 12- year-old daughter factored into the decision, there is no question whatsoever of the seriousness of the harm that could come to her immediate family. It's unspeakable, and it doesn't really require factual definition to satisfy this court, that invasions of this type do not cut deeper and they do not cut more painfully.

The witnesses who testified on the topic agree that they would not allow their children to review such material. I would not subject my children to such nonsense, and you would not subject yours to it. All for the same reason: it's harmful, it's painful, and the legislature has finally said we don't have to. The court remains absolutely baffled as to how any person could feel contrary to that notion, or how any person could be so heartless as to distribute or publish images such as these.

The second element: the necessity for public evaluation of governmental performance. We should be looking here, I think, for a legitimate issue of public accountability by the government. First and foremost, I think we should remember that this is not a decision as to whether these documents will be sealed and never seen again by persons under any circumstances. That's not necessarily the case.

This case is about the public's access to those reports. We're making a decision here about whether the public will see records that our legislature has wisely decided will be private, unless a member of the public shows good cause to see them. The question is whether members of the public should have unfettered, or even fettered access to documents that our legislature has now determined to be presumptively private.

We used to couch that more simply. We used to say that some things are just none of your business. It's good that the legislature made the effort to get through the morass, but if appropriate private people need to see these record, there are legal forums in which they may be seen. For example, the testimony in the argument that we've entertained with respect to the relationship of Mrs. Earnhardt and NASCAR. That's a private matter which does not involve the government at all in the court's view. Strained arguments can be made to create virtually any relationship, but in this case, they are entirely too tenuous to have any legal effect whatsoever.

The only reason that the government has come into this case is the statutory obligation of the medical examiner to complete an autopsy. The only arguable positions taken by those seeking the records have been that the medical examiner is a governmental official who needs to answer to the public for his conduct and the manner in which he operates his office.

Another argument, the office procedures perhaps used by the medical examiner could be different depending upon the fiscal philosophies of those people governed in this area. And the investigation by the Daytona Beach Police Department falls within the same rough parameters. That is, could it or should it have been done differently.

Other than those considerations, this is not a government operation that needs to have its performance evaluated. As a factual matter, the court finds that these are incredibly thin excuses to invade the serious privacy rights of a family. The testimony has been that the police report and the medical examiners performance were within tolerances, in all respects. The medical examiners evaluation has been done here, once by a medical doctor, and once by an expert selected by the parties who reached a separate agreement in mediation.

No questions were raised by either in the scenario in which it can reasonably be expected that if there were any differences, they wouldn't just have been known, they would have been known in neon on the side of a blimp. The question as to whether the medical examiner should or could use a digital camera as opposed to a 35-millimeter camera can be resolved without the necessity of invading the privacy of our families. It's silly to use that as an excuse for prying into personal, private matters.

The court is also directed to consider whether similar information in other public records is available. There's an autopsy report available with diagrams and test results. There's testimony by Mr. Earnhardt's treating physician, and a report by Dr. Myers, (ph) an expert agreed upon by the family and some 25 parties, roughly, for the purpose of reviewing that report and the photographs, both of whom have reviewed the autopsy photos and agree that the photographs provide precious little, if anything. Just an aside, while it can reasonably be argued that medical witnesses seldom recognize fallibility, and in this case, the doctors quickly brush over the prospect that a medical person could have made a mistake, or perhaps even acted improperly, it remains that there is evidence in this particular record regarding this particular family that's sufficient to persuade the court that in this particular case, there was no such mistake or misfeasance, as evidenced by their reviews.

The last consideration is the least intrusive means available to disclose the records. The court, having found that there's no reason to disclose the records, finds also that this particular element doesn't require further discussion. The court is respectfully declining the invitation to participate in the evolution of a disclosural privacy right, under Article I Section 23, or the Federal Constitution. The court is convinced that the Supreme Court of Florida has suggested that this is not a place for a circuit judge to go.

It's interesting, and God knows it's tempting. But the court will rule in favor of the "Independent Alligator" and Mr. Uribe on that claim. As a practical matter, I should also announce that I am also not adopting the argument that the photographs do not constitute a public record under the authority of the Desheven (ph) case.

Accordingly, the court rules as follows: Chapter 2001-1 is still constitutional, and it shall still be given retroactive application. Miss Earnhardt prevails on the issue of whether good cause has been demonstrated under 2001-1 for a review of her husband's autopsy photographs.

The court specifically finds that as matter of fact, she has prevailed overwhelmingly. The court declines to create any restrictions or stipulations under the statute for the viewing or copying of the photographs, and there should be no disclosure of any degree whatsoever.

This ruling also favors the estate of Dale Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Taylor Nicole Earnhardt. It does not favor Dale Earnhardt Inc. Judgment shall be entered in favor of Campus Communications Inc., (UNINTELLIGIBLE), on the action pursuant to Article I, Section 23 of the Florida Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The temporary injunction shall be dissolved, the parties in agreement which was reached in mediation shall be bound by their agreement and the court shall reserve jurisdiction over enforcement of that agreement in the event it becomes necessary. That agreement however is not binding on any other member of the public, anyone who did not sign and agree to that agreement.

WOODRUFF: In Florida, a circuit judge in Volusia County, Joseph Will, ruling in favor of the widow of racecar driver Dale Earnhardt, denying a request from the University of Florida student newspaper and the owners of a Web site to be able to show -- to publish photographs of the autopsy of Dale Earnhardt. Again, the widow of Dale Earnhardt, emerging as the victor in this legal suit, this legal process that has gone on now for several weeks.



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