Teresa Earnhardt turns to fans for support
by Liz Chandler, The Charlotte Observer
LAS VEGAS, Nevada
(March 4, 2001)
The wife of racing legend Dale Earnhardt made an
emotional plea to race fans Sunday, seeking help in her fight to stop the release of her
husband's autopsy photos.
Teresa Earnhardt, joined by Dale Earnhardt Jr.,
appeared before 200 reporters and photographers at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, saying
the release of photos would serve no public good.
"There is nothing to be gained by the release of these
images from Dale's autopsy..." she said. "Allowing access to these photos will
only cause more distress and emotional harm. I'm sure every family in America can
Teresa Earnhardt sued Volusia County Feb. 22 to stop the
release of its medical examiner's autopsy photos taken after her husband's fatal wreck at
the Feb. 18 Daytona 500.
A Florida judge last week issued a temporary order blocking
the release, ruling the photos have "no bona-fide newsworthiness" and could
cause the family "additional anguish and grief."
The Orlando Sentinel newspaper, however, has submitted a
public records request asking for "any and all photographs" of Earnhardt. A
court hearing is expected in coming weeks.
The newspaper's editors said they have no desire to cause the
family more pain and no intention of publishing the photos.
But newspaper lawyer David Bralow said "if these photos
will help elucidate the nature of exactly what went wrong or what happened to Dale
Earnhardt, then the public is served."
On Sunday, Teresa Earnhardt argued that the public release of
the photos would violate the family's privacy and Earnhardt's legacy. She also worries the
pictures would end up on the internet - just as pictures of her husband's wrecked car did
"I am here to tell you that the trauma we have suffered
has only grown since that tragic day two weeks ago," said Earnhardt, speaking just
before Sunday's UAW Daimler-Chrysler 400 race.
"In fact, I have not even had time to caringly unpack
Dale's suitcases from Daytona, let alone have time to grieve for him. The main reason is
because we have been caught up in an unexpected whirlwind as a result of efforts to gain
access to the autopsy photographs."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. did not speak at Sunday's news conference
but appeared with his stepmother as a show of support.
Under Florida's public records law, autopsy reports and
photos are public record unless they are part of an active criminal investigation.
Doctors have said Earnhardt died from a basal skull fracture
suffered during a wreck on the last lap of the Daytona race.
But it remains unclear whether the fracture came from the
violent whipping of Earnhardt's head during the accident, a common cause of such injuries,
or whether it resulted from his head hitting the steering wheel.
That could be important as officials try to determine what
role, if any, the failure of Earnhardt's seat belt played in his death.
NASCAR almost immediately discovered that Earnhardt's seat
belt "separated" during the Daytona race, but officials did not reveal that
information until five days later. NASCAR has refused to say anything more about the belt,
which was sent to a Detroit auto safety company for analysis.
NASCAR's silence has sparked questions and debate about what
happened to the seat belt, manufactured by Simpson Products in Mooresville.
Company owner Bill Simpson insists the belt was not
defective, and several drivers and race teams have supported that view - instead
questioning whether the seat belt was properly installed and worn by Earnhardt.
Another question centers on what role Earnhart's open-face
helmet may have played in his injuries.
It is unclear whether the autopsy photos could help clarify
A spokesman said NASCAR has not taken an active role in
trying to prevent the release of photos.
Teresa Earnhardt's Statement
Thank you for joining us here today on such short notice. I
want to acknowledge several people in the audience, including NASCAR president Mike
Helton, and Dale Earnhardt Inc. drivers Steve Park and Michael Waltrip. Seated next to me,
of course, is Dale Earnhardt Jr. On behalf of him, and my other children, Kerry, Kelley,
and Taylor, I have something very important to say -- not just to the NASCAR family and
its millions of supporters, but to every family in America.
It was just two weeks ago today that my husband died doing
what he loved. We all miss him terribly and can never fully express how grateful we are to
everyone who has shown us their support during this especially difficult and emotional
time. The outpouring of affection for Dale and our family has been overwhelming. Since
that day, we have received thousands of letters, phone calls and e-mails from all around
the world offering sympathy and support. Thank you so much.
However, I am here to tell you that the trauma we have
suffered has only grown since that tragic day two weeks ago. In fact, I have not even had
time to caringly unpack Dale's suitcases from Daytona, let alone have time to grieve for
him. The main reason is because we have been caught up in an unexpected whirlwind as a
result of efforts to gain access to the autopsy photographs of Dale.
We can't believe, and are saddened that anyone would invade
our privacy during this time of grief. I want to let you know that if access to the photos
is allowed, others will demand them, too. And make no mistake, sooner or later the photos
will end up unprotected and published ... and most certainly on the Internet.
We are thankful to the Florida court, which has denied access
to these private photos for the time being. We hope it will order that these images remain
where they belong -- in the medical examiner's confidential records. Ensuring that the
media or others cannot violate Dale's dignity and our family's privacy will make the
healing process possibly less painful.
But there's a larger issue here. As our family has learned,
the laws differ from state-to-state concerning accessibility to autopsy photos. The
deceased have a right to their dignity and loved ones have a right to be free from
exploitation. Allowing access to these photos will only cause more distress and emotional
harm. I'm sure every family in America can understand this.
Even people in the public eye have a right to privacy. This
right is more important than the desire to exploit a tragic situation -- especially when
no public good is being served. There is nothing to be gained by release of these images
from Dale's autopsy.
Releasing the pictures will service only to violate the
privacy of our family and integrity of Dale's legacy. Our family knows that what is
happening to us is wrong and we don't want any other family in America to go through what
we're going through.
This is the first time I've spoken in public since we've lost
Dale. Honestly, I'm not very comfortable being here. It's too soon. But this issue is of
vital importance -- not just to my family -- but to anyone ever faced with being exploited
after losing a loved one.
I am grateful to be among friends, and hopeful that my
difficult decision to come here today will make a difference.
I ask anyone, who feels as strongly as we do, to let your
voice be heard. Over the next few days, please contact the Speaker of the Florida House of
Representatives and the President of the Florida Senate, both of whom are in Tallahassee,
and will hopefully be taking up this issue shortly. Ask them to protect the privacy of
citizens by preventing the publication of autopsy photos. Then do the same in your own
state. Please also contact Florida Governor Jeb Bush and then contact your own governor.
Finally, we encourage you to let the Orlando Sentinel know how you feel about this
Hopefully, something positive will come from our efforts ...
for Dale's sake. He was a wonderful husband, father, son and brother, as well as national
role model for so many. That's the way he should be remembered. Please help us by speaking
out. We need you right now. Thank you for your support.
T h e E a r n h a r d t C o n n
e c t i o n
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