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Images of SeaWorld death remain sealed

Videos and photographs of a trainer's death in Orlando have been kept from the public, but the media and family attorneys are willing to work out an agreement.

March 25, 2010|By Sarah Lundy

Reporting from Orlando, Fla. — For now, video and photos that depict the death of a SeaWorld Orlando trainer during an encounter with a killer whale will remain out of the public's eye.

But the media and attorneys for veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau told a judge Wednesday that they were willing to negotiate an agreement regarding access to the material.

In order to reach a resolution, they asked Orange Circuit Court Judge Lawrence Kirkwood for an extension in the temporary restraining order he granted last week, which prevents the Orange County Sheriff's Office and Medical Examiner's Office from releasing the images. Kirkwood has not ruled on their request.

Under Florida law, all documents, including images, become public record once an investigation is concluded.

The family's attorney, Jon Mills, said he had seen the video but wouldn't comment on whether the family had or ever would.

"It is the depiction of a human being dying," he said. "I don't think anybody wants to see that. . . . We know Dawn Brancheau died in a tragic accident. It doesn't add anything to that."

Several media organizations, including the Orlando Sentinel, want the right to inspect the videos and pictures.

They don't want to publish the images, said the media organizations' attorney, Rachel Fugate.

There were some inconsistencies reported about what happened, and releasing the images would allow independent eyes to review the material, she said.

Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, said it was an issue of independent oversight, ensuring that SeaWorld and sheriff's investigators took all necessary actions.

Brancheau's family first asked for the restraining order, saying the release of the material would cause them severe pain.

SeaWorld joined the family in the request.

Copies of witness statements, incident reports and 911 calls already have been made public.

"In looking at this whole case, there is no constitutional right to voyeurism," Mills told the judge. "There is a constitutional right to privacy."

At issue are photos taken by Orange County deputies and SeaWorld video that park officials turned over to the sheriff's office after the 6-ton orca Tilikum grabbed Brancheau by her ponytail and pulled her into the water, drowning the trainer.

slundy@ orlandosentinel.com

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