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Tuesday, March 27
Gov. Bush could sign bill Thursday
Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – If everything goes right for backers of legislation to limit access to autopsy photos in Florida, the measure could be law by Thursday night.

Working on a personal plea from the widow of late NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt, the Florida Senate is ready to send a bill to Gov. Jeb Bush that would limit public access to such photos.

The measure (CS-SB 1356) before the Senate would prevent the public and the media from viewing anyone's autopsy photos unless they can convince a judge there is good cause to see them. The House already passed a similar proposal.

Bush, who has already said he supports the measure, is in town for a Cabinet meeting and has time on his schedule in the afternoon to handle a bill signing.

Lawmakers were working on travel arrangements to have Teresa Earnhardt attend the signing.

Racing fans have flooded Bush's office and legislative leaders with thousands of e-mails, letters and telephone calls, protesting efforts by the media to see the post-mortem photos. The photos are normally public record, but Teresa Earnhardt got a judge to seal them in February, the day after her husband was killed in the Daytona 500.

If the bill becomes law it would be retroactive, although the Orlando Sentinel's effort to view Earnhardt's autopsy photos is being handled in mediation.

The newspaper has said it doesn't want to publish the photos, but wanted an expert to look at them as it reports on safety on the NASCAR racing circuit.

On Monday, a Duke University crash expert spent two hours inside the Volusia County medical examiner's office studying photos and other reports related to Earnhardt's autopsy.

Dr. Barry Myers said that within weeks, he would issue a report on the cause of death and kind of head injuries Earnhardt sustained.

The president of a Web site and an independent student newspaper at the University of Florida, the Independent Florida Alligator, are pursuing their own court cases for access to the Florida photos. A hearing for the Alligator and Websitecity.com is set for April 5.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors, a group of more than 500 of the top newspaper editors nationwide, and the Society of Professional Journalists support the push to get the photos so a head trauma expert can make an independent determination of the cause of the auto racer's death.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said it would be inaccurate to claim that the bill is a reaction to Earnhardt's death.

"Most of us thought such photos were part of a medical record and, subsequently, a private matter," King said earlier in the week after floor discussion on the measure.

King said the measure allows families to see those photos, and establishes a hierarchy within a family to establish who has the final say.

King, whose district includes Daytona International Speedway, said many Internet sites feature ghoulish photos, including those taken during autopsies. The bill, he said, was an attempt to keep such sites from profiting off death.

Meanwhile, the Volusia County medical examiner has asked a judge to release it from the agreement between the Sentinel and Teresa Earnhardt.

The medical examiner's office says it can't legally enforce the agreement as custodian of the images because the photos are a public record by law.

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