In the hour after Dale Earnhardt crashed into a wall at the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, his wife, Teresa, watched from the back of a trauma room at Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach, Fla., as doctors pronounced him dead. When a medical technician, following hospital procedure, tried to remove his wedding ring and place it with his other personal effects, Teresa stepped forward and said, forcefully, "No." The ring stayed on.
Since then Teresa Earnhardt, 42, has not stopped fighting for her husband. Her most trying battle: an effort to keep 47 digital photos taken by an associate medical examiner during Earnhardt's autopsy from becoming public. On June 13, after three tense days of hearings, Florida circuit Judge Joseph Will ruled that the photos should be sealed, handing Teresa a clear-cut victory. "This has been occupying all of her time," says Steve Crisp, a family spokesman. "It's bad enough to lose [Dale], but no one should have to go through what she has the last few months."
Interest in the pictures stems from the continuing controversy surrounding Earnhardt's death, which was officially attributed to blunt-force injuries to his skull, possibly caused by whiplash but which some still suspect were caused by a broken seat belt. Teresa, claiming she was fearful that her daughter Taylor, 12, would see the gruesome images of her father, won a temporary injunction on Feb. 22 to seal the photos. Several media outlets challenged the injunction, arguing that the photos are critical to the investigation of the fatal crash. "There is still a major controversy over why Dale Earnhardt died," says Trey Csar, 21, a University of Florida senior and editor of the student-run Independent Florida Alligator, one of two lead challengers to the injunction. "We don't intend to put a picture of his corpse on the front page."
Nevertheless, Judge Will sided with Teresa, calling claims of journalistic interest "thin excuses to invade the privacy of a family." The victory, however, may be short-lived since an appeal is all but certain. And, just as surely, Teresa will continue to fight on behalf of the man with whom she shared her life for 18 years. "We traveled together, we built our business together, we raised our children together," she told the court. "We were...a team."
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