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Teresa Earnhardt Takes the Stand

Aired June 12, 2001 - 14:17   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to take you live now to the courtroom in Daytona Beach, Florida, where Teresa Earnhardt, the widow of racecar legend Dale Earnhardt, has taken the stand. She is giving her testimony to why a college newspaper and a Web site should not get access to her husband's autopsy photos. Let's listen in.

TERESA EARNHARDT, WIDOW OF DALE EARNHARDT: ... memorial services, there were mass confusion from phone calls from fans. And I probably did not have time to inspect things like that, it -- in spite of the fact that it was totally irrelevant, because Dale was dead.

MICHAEL URIBE, OWNER, WEBSITECITY.COM: OK. Let me ask you about Dale Earnhardt, Inc. What is Dale Earnhardt, Inc.?

EARNHARDT: It's a corporation that we started and owned that is primarily a racing business.

URIBE: OK. And are you in - a shareholder in that company?

EARNHARDT: I'm the owner.

URIBE: You're the - an owner?

EARNHARDT: I am the owner.

URIBE: You're the sole owner today?

EARNHARDT: That is correct.

URIBE: OK. And, and Dale Earnhardt, Inc. is also a plaintiff in this lawsuit. Do you understand that? It's a party that's actually ...


URIBE: And do you know the reason that Dale Earnhardt, Inc. is pursuing this lawsuit?


URIBE: What is that reason?

EARNHARDT: To protect the integrity of our company, whose namesake is Dale Earnhardt. To protect privacy and damages that it could affect, our company.

URIBE: OK. And how is it that you believe that the integrity of the company could be affected? Why was the lawsuit necessary to protect the integrity of the company?

EARNHARDT: Because the photographs are humiliating, disgusting, negative. They could be nothing but harmful and painful to anyone involved in my family, my company, our fans, anyone.

URIBE: After the Rockingham press conference, did you learn that -- do you have Bill Simpson?


URIBE: Who is Bill Simpson?

EARNHARDT: He is the man that I assume started Simpson Safety Racing Products.

URIBE: And is he the man, or his company, that manufactured the seat belt that you looked at?

EARNHARDT: The Simpson Company, yes.

URIBE: The Simpson Company -- Bill Simpson's the owner of that, right?

WITNESS I don't know who owns that company.

URIBE: Did you learn after the Rockingham conference that Bill Simpson was disputing NASCAR's claim that the seat belt had failed?

UNIDENTIFIED ATTORNEY: Objection -- irrelevant, immaterial.

JUDGE: What's the relevancy?

URIBE: Your honor, the relevance is that the lawsuit was commenced with no mention of autopsy photographs. And shortly after the lawsuit was filed, there was this controversy with respect to whether the theory that NASCAR was espousing was correct or incorrect. And what I'm about to inquire into this witness is whether there was some concern on her behalf about what had happened and whether she had some thoughts about the potential need for other people to look at the photographs and other evidence to determine what was the mechanism of death in this case.

UNIDENTIFIED ATTORNEY: I'm sorry, but I think there was something about the length of the answer that caused me to have trouble with it. What's irrelevant about it?

I have an attention span problem -- I thought you were all aware.


UNIDENTIFIED ATTORNEY: What's the point you're trying to make here? URIBE: It's -- the point I'm trying to make is, I think even this witness may offer some evidence here that seeing the photographs of the autopsy is relevant to the a determination of the mechanism of death and whether the medical examiner in this case had properly performed duties in trying to determine the cause of death, or had overlooked certain things. Because we had erupt, immediately after the filing of the lawsuit, a controversy with respect to what was the mechanism of death. It was triggered by NASCAR itself, and we've just had some testimony here that NASCAR presented substantial evidence to Mrs. Earnhardt that persuaded her, I would submit, that it was the seat belt failure -- that the seat belt did, in fact, fail.

And when we get -- you'll see, and you heard from Dr. Bohannon that there's a phone call that comes shortly after this where he talks about Mrs. Earnhardt calling him and asking him about what's in the autopsy photographs.

And that (AUDIO GAP) many different reasons, obviously. But that's where we're headed with this.

JUDGE: To me these are not relevant -- to me these are not relevant. None of this has any relevance of what we're talking about.

UNIDENTIFIED ATTORNEY: We ran headlong into that attention span problem again. Your answer was really long, and I'm struggling with the notion that the questions of this witness about that particular topic really don't bear on any of the statutory criteria.

JUDGE: Number 406 says, "The medical examiner does not determine the mechanism of injuries." So why would we ask a layperson that?

URIBE: Let me skip ahead, your honor.


URIBE: I think maybe that that will clear up some of the issues here. After the -- after the Rockingham conference that was -- press conference on Friday the 23rd, do you remember calling Dr. Steve Bohannon?

EARNHARDT: I don't remember when it was but, yes, I remember calling him.

URIBE: OK, and you were here. You heard his testimony?


URIBE: OK, why did you call Dr. Bohannon?

EARNHARDT: Well, this injunction does say that the medical examiner took a variety of photographs in connection with the performance of his duties, which in my mind and intent, is autopsy photographs. And the reason that I called Dr. Bohannon was to ask him how morbid and gruesome that these photographs were, that I might have to deal with and prepare myself for and my 12-year-old daughter and my other children, and all of our -- the rest of our family. I wanted to know what to prepare for.

URIBE: OK, and why were you preparing for the release of those documents? The release had already been enjoined.

EARNHARDT: Because I wanted to know how to prepare. I don't know what's going to happen if this -- I didn't know if this was going to go through or not.

URIBE: Did someone tell you that Dr. Bohannon had viewed the autopsy photographs? Did you know that before you called him?


URIBE: OK. And when you -- when you called him, did he tell you that he had viewed the autopsy photographs?


URIBE: OK. Was that upsetting to you?


URIBE: That Dr. Bohannon had viewed them? Dr. Bohannon -- just Dr. Bohannon, if you focus on that...

EARNHARDT: It was not upsetting to me that Dr. Bohannon had viewed them because I saw him as Dale's physician and would assume that that was his responsibility to follow up on his duties, because he was going to have to report to me.

URIBE: After you spoke to Dr. Bohannon, did you subsequently agree that another expert could take a look at the photographs?

EARNHARDT: At what time?

URIBE: Well, let's go back to the -- even before you spoke to Dr. Bohannon. Even before you spoke to him about the autopsy photographs, had you agreed that "The Orlando Sentinel" could have a reporter go in and look at the photographs? Did you ever do that before you spoke to Dr. Bohannon?


URIBE: OK. Was there ever a point in time when you considered allowing that to happen?


URIBE: And did you ever consider allowing any journalists, reporters or other experts going in to see the photographs?


URIBE: OK. And then after you spoke to Dr. Bohannon, you did agree subsequently that a court appointed expert, Dr. Barry Myers, could see the photographs. Is that true? EARNHARDT: Under the understanding that they would be filled permanently after that.

URIBE: OK. And was it upsetting to you at all that Dr. Myers to be able to view the photographs?

EARNHARDT: Extremely.

URIBE: And why was that?

EARNHARDT: Because I didn't think that there was any use for any further examination. There was no questionable -- no questions what happened. It was an accident and it was extremely emotionally painful.

URIBE: OK. And you know that Dr. Myers did actually view the photographs, right?


URIBE: And are aware that he then came up with a report about what he had found?


URIBE: And you're aware that he concluded the seat belt failure did not result in your husband's death?

UNIDENTIFIED ATTORNEY: Objection, irrelevant.

JUDGE: Relevance?

URIBE: Well, the relevance of this, again, it's going to whether the viewing of the photographs is something that is important to evaluate governmental performance. And I'm simply asking this witness whether the information now that she's getting from Dr. Myers, who had viewed the photographs, is causing some concerns to her about whether accurate or inaccurate information is coming out about the failure of the seat belt. Because now Dr. Myers is issuing a report after having viewed the photographs that says seat belt failure didn't have anything to do with death.

UNIDENTIFIED ATTORNEY: Judge, I would like to be heard on this.

You can read Dr. Myers' report from the beginning to the end and you can start at the end and read it backwards. And you will not find one reference to autopsy photographs in that report. So why are there some persistence that somehow Dr. Myers has referred, or somehow, depended upon the autopsy photographs, is sheer nonsense. That has never been said. Dr. Myers has never said it. There is nothing in the record and there will be nothing in the record that he did. So, why do we keep going around that field, that post, whatever you want to call it? Just not in the record. He did not say that he used them in any way.

JUDGE: Mr. Uribe? URIBE: Your honor, I would just bring up the fact that whether or not that was a condition of these, of the agreement, whether or not that's used for the term autopsy photo or refers to the autopsy photos in the report. I would question that to bring that to your honor's attention, whether that was part of the agreement.

JUDGE: Thank you. I still am having difficulty making the controversy over the seat belt or the hands or the NASCAR people or any of that be relevant to the question of review of the governmental functions involved.

URIBE: Right. Well, I ...

JUDGE: You measured -- I don't know that this witness is the one to make the point that perhaps the government needs to be reviewed periodically.

URIBE: It may not be. And all, really, I was asking is whether that, as you became aware of that, and I think she said she was aware of the report, and whether that gave her some concerns about whether the photographs might show some conflict with the seat belt theory that had been put out there by NASCAR. I think it was ...

UNIDENTIFIED ATTORNEY: I object, your honor.

JUDGE: Let's just ask her that and be done with it and move on to the next topic, please.

URIBE: OK. We were talking about Dr. Myers' report. And did you become aware of the fact that Dr. Myers' report concluded that the seat belt failure had nothing to do with your husband's death?

EARNHARDT: I read the report.

URIBE: Why did you read the report?

EARNHARDT: Well, I was interested in his conclusions.

URIBE: OK. And did you see in the report that a part of it was that he had assumed that the seat belt in fact failed, correct?

EARNHARDT: I believe so.

URIBE: OK. And then do you further remember that he concluded that the failure of the seat belt, it had nothing to do with your husband's death?

EARNHARDT: I believe ...

UNIDENTIFIED ATTORNEY: I object that -- no, three or four questions into the one you're allowed.

URIBE: And that's the original question. That was the original out there.

JUDGE: OK. And we're at the end of the line. If you'll answer that question, please.

EARNHARDT: I believe it said "did not play a factor in".

URIBE: OK. And the next question I'd like to ask is, did that cause you some concern that there was a need to see what was in those autopsy photographs that Dr. Myers had viewed, as a part of the preparation of his report, that caused you some concern?

EARNHARDT: Absolutely not.


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Teresa Earnhardt on the stand in Florida. We will continue to monitor events in that story. We have breaking news out of New York.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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