DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- Dale Earnhardt's widow and Orlando Sentinel lawyers were ordered Tuesday to meet to try to resolve their dispute over autopsy photos of the NASCAR great.
The judge's order came as a Florida Senate committee unanimously approved a bill that would restrict the public's access to autopsy photos.
Under state law, the photos are a public record, but Circuit Judge Joseph G. Will blocked their release pending a March 19 hearing on Teresa Earnhardt's request to keep them private. Dale Earnhardt was killed in a crash at the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18.
At a court hearing in Daytona Beach, Will told lawyers for Mrs. Earnhardt and the Sentinel to meet Thursday morning. Former Volusia County Judge John J. Upchurch IV will serve as mediator.
"I would like you to stay here until you settle it or until you are absolutely sure that you can't," Will told both sides.
They have until March 19 to reach an agreement or it will be up to the judge.
"We'll have to see what the other side proposes," said Skip Eubanks, a lawyer Mrs. Earnhardt.
Sentinel lawyer David Bralow said: "From the outset we have requested an opportunity to speak to Teresa Earnhardt. I think it's a positive step that we'll get to do that."
The Sentinel had filed a request to have an independent authority look at the photos. The Sentinel said it doesn't plan to publish the photos, but wants an outside expert to examine them as it looks into NASCAR safety.
The Sentinel's request has outraged NASCAR fans and others who have deluged public officials and the newspaper with complaints.
A bill that would require a judge to approve any requests by the public to see autopsy photos won unanimous approval Tuesday from the Senate Criminal Justice Committee in Tallahassee.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jim King, a Republican from Jacksonville whose district includes Daytona International Speedway, would require a person to show good cause to a judge before being allowed to see the photos.
The bill still needs approval from the Senate Government Oversight and Productivity Committee before it can come to the full Senate for a vote. A House companion bill hasn't had a hearing yet.
"By this legislation I've cut out the rotten.coms and the ghoul.com Web sites from getting the photos," King said.
Gov. Jeb Bush supports the idea of keeping the Earnhardt photos private.
"I'm hopeful there will be a compromise to balance out the rights to privacy in these kinds of moments for famous people and not so famous people (with) the right for the public to be aware of these things," Bush said.
Representatives of newspapers argued that if reporters have to go to court every time they want to look at photos, they will unnecessarily involve grieving families, when they may not end up wanting the photos anyway.
One of the news organizations that supports the Sentinel's request, The Associated Press Sports Editors, said the paper is trying to answer important safety questions surrounding Earnhardt's death.
"That's good journalism -- even under difficult circumstances -- and the Sentinel's right under Florida's open records law," said Tim Burke, APSE president and sports editor of The Palm Beach Post. "The Sentinel is trying to advance the story for its readers while being sensitive to the Earnhardt family's concerns."
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