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Jewish World Review June 20, 2001 / 30 Sivan, 5761

Mark Lane

Mark Lane
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Consumer Reports

Autopsy case goes beyond Web sleazoids -- FORENSIC photography was what finally drove me from crime reporting. After viewing photos of a woman killed by a young man armed with a variety of objects commonly found around the kitchen, it became clear to me it was time to move to another part of the news business.

For this reason, it's baffling to me that a DeLand, Fla.-based Web site is suing for access to the autopsy photos of racing legend Dale Earnhardt.

Its owner seems to believe that by posting photos of the dead bodies of NASCAR greats on his site, he will generate huge traffic. Call it Presumably, this will keep his portal site in business at a time when even better known portal sites have fallen from favor and profitability.

And maybe it will work. It's a sick, sad world out there in cyberspace. In the battle for eyeballs, nothing's too extreme.

The Independent Florida Alligator, a Gainesville college newspaper fiercely independent of the University of Florida, also is a party in this case, but with better motive. It objects to a law that makes it all but impossible to view autopsy photos even when there are questions about a death and the findings of a coroner.

At the other courtroom table last week was Earnhardt's widow, Teresa. Like her late husband, she is not a person given to a lot of words. "It's just not fair," she said in court last week. And that was the powerful core of her argument in its entirety.

It's just not fair. There is no answer to that objection.

Who should have to endure this? Who should have to have her husband's broken body put on worldwide display in an electronic sideshow for the rubes to gawk at? The daughter of Neil Bonnett, who died in a 1994 crash, told the court of seeing pictures on the site of "my dad, naked on a table, gutted like a deer."

Ugly stuff.

The anguish of the Earnhardts, the monstrousness of the Web site's actions and the buffoonishness of its president's court appearances have obscured all other issues. But this is a harder case than just sleazeoid Web voyeurs vs. grieving family.

The Earnhardt Family Protection Act, complete with its showboaty title, is not the most carefully crafted of legislation. Its provisions were tossed into the leg-o-matic and popped out in time for the evening news. It went from vague notion to state law within three weeks. This is a recipe for bad law.

Despite the best efforts of the Legislature, Florida still has the strongest public-records law in the nation. The idea behind this is that when you let the government do things in secret (1) people won't trust it and (2) it is more likely to mess up. Experience has time and again proved this true.

Under the Earnhardt Family Protection Act, though, the courts and the families of the deceased hold the keys to this kind of public record. No other legitimate third party is likely to prevail in court to find out the details.

Sadly though, there are times when causes of death are more than just a private matter. Times when people ask: how many times did the police officers really shoot this guy? How could the death have happened the way the coroner said? How could there only have been one gunman? Was this death preventable?

By overreacting to the ghouls of the Web, the Florida Legislature and the court have made it hard to answer those kind of questions. "Just trust the government" is the new answer.

Americans in general and Floridians in particular aren't very good at just trusting the government.

This is one of those cases where the immediate effect of the law and the ruling are good. The Web sleazes lost. But the effects years down the road are troubling.

This was a hard case that way. And as lawyers have said for ages, hard cases make for bad law.

Comment on JWR contributor Mark Lane's column by clicking here.

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© 2001, M. R. Lane