Ten after 3: Fight over Dale Earnhardt's autopsy photos leads to victory for family privacy (2024)

Ten after 3: Fight over Dale Earnhardt's autopsy photos leads to victory for family privacy (1)

DAYTONA BEACH - Bill Posey received more than 10,000 e-mails when he led a push in the Florida Senate to seal Dale Earnhardt's autopsy photographs, but none more lasting than a simple and heartfelt "thank you" from Kristen Bonnett.

From that moment, the Earnhardt Family Protection Act was more than a matter of law for Posey. It was an obsession.

Bonnett, the daughter of stock car racing legend Neil Bonnett, already had endured the horrific pain of losing her father in an accident Feb. 11, 1994, while he practiced for the Daytona 500. But the pain for Kristen and the rest of her family was magnified by the release of photos of her dead father's autopsy on the Internet.

Posey, a racer himself, wanted to make sure nobody's privacy, even in death, would be violated again.

"When I heard people were lining up to get copies of Dale Earnhardt's autopsy photos, it made me sick," Posey said. "A family has the right to protect its dignity."

Posey, now a U.S. congressman (R-Rockledge), raced on Central Florida short tracks for nearly 30 years. Ten years ago, he joined the late Jim King (R-Jacksonville) in creating a bill that keeps all autopsy photographs out of the public domain unless a judge or a family member releases them.

The 48 images of Bonnett posted on Michael Uribe's WebsiteCity.com were disturbing, Posey said. Somebody forwarded several of the photos to him and to Kristen Bonnett.

Posey and King wanted to make sure nobody did the same thing to the Earnhardt family.

The state senate passed the bill 40-0. Within days, the Orlando Sentinel, The Independent Florida Alligator and WebsiteCity.com all filed suit. The Sentinel wanted all 33 photos released so its own investigators could examine the cause of death for the seven-time NASCAR series champion.

Teresa Earnhardt joined Gov. Jeb Bush in Tallahassee when he signed the bill into law on March 29, 2001 - just 39 days after Earnhardt died on the final lap of the Daytona 500.

"I am pleased and grateful for what has happened here in Tallahassee today," she said then.

Jeff Miller (R-Chumuckla) and Randy Johnson (R-Winter Garden) led the fight in the Florida House of Representatives.

Earnhardt was a private man outside the track, and his family is committed to maintaining his privacy after his death. Teresa Earnhardt now rarely attends races. She was the co-owner of Jamie McMurray's winning car at the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 last year, but she wasn't at either race.

The official cause of Earnhardt's death is listed as a ring fracture to the base of the skull created by the driver's head striking the steering wheel or him slamming back into the seat after his seatbelt ripped.

The Sentinel contended Earnhardt died of whiplash and that a head and neck restraint device might have saved his life. It wanted the photos to prove its case.

"We had no interest in publishing the photos," former Orlando Sentinel vice president and editor Tim Franklin told NBC News in 2003. "We expressed that to Mrs. Earnhardt from the beginning. We didn't want to invade her privacy. We didn't want to extend her grief. We simply wanted a medical opinion that would provide more knowledge about how drivers die."

Thomas Julin, the attorney for the University of Florida student newspaper, argued the law violated the First Amendment because it gave the courts power to approve or deny access to public records.

"The First Amendment ceases to be a bulwark of freedom and instead turns it into a nuclear warhead used to eradicate the very freedom it was meant to protect," Julin said.

Thom Rumberger represented the Earnhardt family at the Supreme Court.

"It repulses me, as an advocate and as a person, what those creeps are doing," he said. "You know exactly where they were going with the Earnhardt photographs."

The Florida Supreme Court upheld the law 4-3. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected Uribe's appeal on Dec. 1, 2003. Uribe did not respond to e-mail requests for an interview.

Posey sold his Late Model car two years ago after his job on Capitol Hill became so demanding.

"To this day, there are some people in the media who think I'm a lowlife," Posey said. "My racing background made me a little more aggressive to get this done, and I'm very proud of what we accomplished. This protects families. Some people still pound me for it, but at least I can live with myself and sleep at night. Hopefully, the families this protects can do the same."

Ten after 3: Fight over Dale Earnhardt's autopsy photos leads to victory for family privacy (2024)
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