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Tuesday, April 10
Updated: April 12, 2:27 PM ET
Questions abound over autopsy photos
By Jerry Bonkowski
ESPN.com

"Earnhardt killed; victim of murder conspiracy."

I guarantee that or a similar outlandish headline will soon appear in a newspaper or magazine, or be shouted out on a TV or radio, if Teresa Earnhardt continues her fight to keep autopsy photos of her late husband from ever being seen by the public.

With the escalating fight from newspapers and a website which specializes in autopsy photos of celebrities seeking judicial release of the photos, and Mrs. Earnhardt's equally obstinate crusade to keep the photos forever buried, the battle of wills on both sides is going to eventually lead to even greater pain for Mrs. Earnhardt in the long run.

The harder she fights, the harder the other side will fight -- and in the long run, Mrs. Earnhardt is ultimately going to lose her battle on First Amendment grounds.

It's been over seven weeks since Dale Earnhardt was tragically killed in a final-lap crash in the Daytona 500. Four days later, Mrs. Earnhardt went to court to permanently seal all autopsy photos, so they never would be released to the public or media.

I sympathize with Mrs. Earnhardt. Her loss and burden have been great. But sooner or later, the public's perception of her as the grieving widow is going to change. The more she pushes on, people who originally supported her are going to ask why she is so adamant about keeping the photos from being released.

Like everyone else, I have grieved over Earnhardt's death. Winston Cup racing just hasn't been the same without him since. And it's going to be a very long time before fans, the media and the sport stops grieving.

But after nearly two months of lamenting, after nearly two months of watching the verbal jousting over the fate of the photos, the time has come for Mrs. Earnhardt to abandon her bid to keep them private and agree to some type of compromise.

Perhaps a few photos should be released to the public to appease the vultures that have been circling. That way, Mrs. Earnhardt could keep the majority of photos under wraps and under her control, while at the same time the media buzzards will be happy to have some tangible evidence of the gruesome death Earnhardt suffered.

But if Mrs. Earnhardt continues to champion her cause, people are going to question whether privacy is her real motive. Sooner or later, people will want to know why Mrs. Earnhardt is so intent on keeping the photos hidden.

After seeing the bold headline, "Dale Earnhardt death crash cover-up" in an airport newsstand, curiosity got the better of me and I picked up a copy of The Star (dated April 17) a couple of days ago. Sure, The Star is a weekly supermarket tabloid more known for its sensationalism than solid journalism, but I tried to keep an open mind while reading a story outlining some of the same thoughts I've had since Earnhardt was killed.

The Star's report actually made sense -- lots of sense, in fact. It raised several questions that no one, not Mrs. Earnhardt, NASCAR officials, fans nor the media have been able to answer.

Perhaps the most poignant part of the article was a quote from Dr. Ronald Reeves, Volusia County coroner from 1991 to '98, who said, "There's no question there's a cover-up going on. It's obvious."

While I usually take tabloid journalism with a grain of salt, I have to admit The Star's story got me thinking. That led me to make up a list of my own questions (and a few follow-up queries) about the events that have unfolded during the last seven weeks. I ask you readers to keep an open mind when reading them, because some of the points raised are indeed starting to trouble me more and more as Mrs. Earnhardt continues her campaign.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
First Amendment to the United States Constitution

1.) How can the Florida Senate -- which quickly and unanimously approved a new law making it a felony to release or publish autopsy photos without judicial approval (remember, this is the state where it took six weeks to decide a presidential election) -- and Governor Jeb Bush expect the law to survive a legal challenge to the First Amendment? If groups like the powerful Freedom Forum, perhaps the most prominent supporter of the First Amendment, decide to challenge the Sunshine State's new law, upon what legal ground will the state be able to build a case? And once this becomes a full-blown First Amendment issue, rest assured a number of larger and more powerful newspapers are going to join the fray. If other newspapers and media outlets around the country see that the ones who are leading the fight to have the photos released are being wrongfully discriminated against or censored, many more will join the battle, much like they did with the presidential vote recount issue.

2.) Why is Mrs. Earnhardt so intent on keeping the autopsy photos private when their release will likely only serve two purposes: First, it will satisfy morbid curiosity (like people slowing down and gawking at accidents on the freeway). Secondly, the photos will allow closure to fans who've had their favorite driver snatched from their grasp without the chance to say good bye. Seeing the photos would not only show the finality of Earnhardt's death, it would also allow fans the chance to say a final "good bye" to Earnhardt, in much the same way as occurred following the death of Elvis Presley.

3.) Speaking of Presley, how is it that autopsy photos of himself as well as other celebrities such as John Lennon, Marilyn Monroe and even John F. Kennedy are in the public domain, yet Earnhardt's photos aren't? Does that make him more special than the others, or in a different untouchable class?

4.) Why were police investigators prevented from examining the helmet Earnhardt was wearing at the time of the crash, as well as the wreckage of his No. 3 Chevrolet? Why have NASCAR officials refused independent examinations of the helmet and car? Better yet, where are the helmet and car wreckage today? In a similar vein, why did NASCAR officials refuse to allow local police officials in New Hampshire from examining the wreckage of the cars Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin were driving when they were both killed months apart last year at New Hampshire International Raceway? And why hasn't NASCAR enlisted the expertise of organizations such as the National Transportation Safety Board?

5.) Why were police investigators barred from attending Earnhardt's autopsy?

6.) In the interest of compromise, why won't Mrs. Earnhardt allow the release of even a selected number of photos, say, a half-dozen, with a variety of mild to graphic illustrations? That would cover all bases of the controversy, and she would be able to keep the remainder of the photos under wraps forever.

7.) While this "private" matter is causing her a lot of "pain," as she has said, doesn't Mrs. Earnhardt realize she's only magnifying the pain with her ongoing -- and very public -- battle? And why have we heard nary a word about the fate of the photos from Dale Jr. or his natural mother (Teresa is Dale Jr.'s stepmother), who was long-divorced from the elder Earnhardt?

8.) How will releasing even a few autopsy photos harm Earnhardt's legend, if at all?

9.) Doesn't Mrs. Earnhardt realize the longer she continues, public sentiment -- and sympathy -- is going to start turning against her? After all, it's human nature. People are going to start saying if there's nothing to cover up, why not release the photos? And when that happens, it's inevitable that publications such as The Star are going to start asking (and printing) much more revealing questions, rumors and outlandish allegations about the accident and Mrs. Earnhardt's agenda. Even if the rumors aren't true, they could do greater damage than Mrs. Earnhardt's bid to keep the photos out of the limelight -- and ultimately cause her much greater pain.

10.) Or, after nine questions, perhaps the most significant question of all is this: Is a conspiracy and cover-up truly taking place?

In my mind, there really is only one conclusion to settle the ongoing controversy once and for all, letting it fade away. That conclusion: Mrs. Earnhardt should give up her battle to keep all the photos hidden. She and those on the other side of the debate should work collectively to reach a compromise to allow a few photos to be released, while allowing the remainder to be sealed.

If not, and if Mrs. Earnhardt continues to press the issue, rumors of a cover-up and conspiracy are going to increase. And then Mrs. Earnhardt is really going to wish she had privacy.

Veteran motorsports writer Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR Winston Cup for ESPN.com.

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