It really was no surprise to many. Wednesday a grand jury in Ontario New York ruled that no charges would be filed against NASCAR champion Tony Stewart. According to several legal experts, based on the evidence from the accident, it would be hard for any jury to find that Stewart intentionally committed a crime.
Prior to Wednesday however many race fans and even some members of the media had found the three time champion guilty of willfully running down and killing young Kevin Ward Jr. The incident occurred on Saturday night August 9th during a sprint car race at Canandiagua Motorsports Park in upstate New York. Video showed that Ward had been involved in an incident exiting turn 2 with Stewart . Ward’s car came to rest on the back stretch. The 20 year old exited the vehicle, and still wearing his racing helmet walked toward the line of cars circling under caution. He angrily pointed towards the car driven by Stewart; Stewart’s car struck Ward who was thrown in the air and landed several feet away. Ward was later pronounced dead at a local hospital.
Stewart would miss the race at Watkins Glen the next day, and two more races before returning to the circuit at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Aug. 29. The Ontario County New York Sheriff’s office completed its investigation earlier this month and soon after the Ontario County District Attorney announced that the evidence would be presented to a grand jury for a final determination of what, if any, charges will be filed.
As the racing community waited many wondered what the outcome would be . Legal experts said Stewart could be charged with second-degree manslaughter under New York law if prosecutors believed he “recklessly caused the death of another person”; negligent homicide was another possibility. The only thing new from the original evidence was that the original video, and a new one that surfaced, had been enhanced. Beyond that though, there seemed to be only the original evidence seen by nearly everyone.
Wednesday Ontario County DA Michael Tantillo, released the grand jury’s recommendation. He said the grand jury found “no basis to charge Tony Stewart with any crimes.” The full statement read as follows:
“This week an Ontario County grand jury has been meeting to hear testimony and review evidence gathered in the Tony Stewart matter, relating to the death of Kevin Ward at the Canandaigua Motor Speedway on Aug. 9, 2014. The grand jury has completed its investigation. During the course of the grand jury presentation, approximately two dozen witnesses testified. These included a number of race car drivers, racetrack employees and volunteers, two accident reconstruction experts, medical personnel, and a number of police officers. In addition, the grand jury reviewed a number of photographs and video recordings, as well as other documentary evidence. After listening to and questioning all of the witnesses, and reviewing all of the evidence, the grand jury has determined that there is no basis to charge Tony Stewart with any crimes; his case was ‘No-Billed’ by the grand jury.”
The fact that the grand jury had decided not to charge Stewart was no surprise. Legal experts seemed to agree that the DA was simply doing his due diligence by presenting the evidence to a grand jury. The case then would seem to be closed. However, at a press conference in front of the courthouse, the DA made a shocking revelation. Mr. Tantillo said that toxicology reports showed that Kevin Ward Jr., had traces of marijuana in his system in amounts large enough “to impair judgment”.
For the first time the world got a clearer picture of just what might have contributed to the tragedy on August 9th.
Shortly after the DA’s press conference, Stewart issued a statement of his own:
“This has been the toughest and most emotional experience of my life, and it will stay with me forever. I’m very grateful for all the support I’ve received and continue to receive.”
“I respect everything the District Attorney and Sheriff’s Office did to thoroughly investigate this tragic accident. While the process was long and emotionally difficult, it allowed for all the facts of the accident to be identified and known.
“While much of the attention has been on me, it’s important to remember a young man lost his life. Kevin Ward Jr.’s family and friends will always be in my thoughts and prayers.”
Perhaps the biggest part of Stewart’s statement was the sentence that the grand jury proceeding, “allowed for all the facts of the accident to be identified and known.”
Whether Stewart knew about the toxicology report or not is a matter of speculation. But one fact is now clear, one fact that wasn’t known prior to Wednesday by the general public: Kevin Ward Jr. was operating a powerful racecar at high speeds while under the influence of drugs. That the levels were such that his judgment was most likely impaired.
Wednesday afternoon the Ward family issued a statement of its own:
“Our son got out of his car during caution while the race was suspended,” the statement said. “All the other vehicles were reducing speed and not accelerating except for Stewart who intentionally tried to intimidate Kevin by accelerating and sliding his car towards him causing this tragedy.
“The focus should be on Mr. Stewart and not my son. This matter is not at rest and we will pursue all remedies in fairness to Kevin.”
Any parent would pursue any and all remedies if their child was killed so tragically, no one can, or should, take that away from them. However, with the new evidence that their son was under the influence of drugs, their case is now a much weaker one. The guilt has to shift; no driver should operate a motor vehicle while impaired, much less a powerful racecar that demands the sharpest of attention and the focus only a sober person can provide.
Stewart will be affected by this tragedy for the rest of his life, as will the Ward family. No one can change what has happened, but with the newest evidence, Stewart should take some comfort in knowing that the blame most likely can be found elsewhere. While the family will continue to pursue remedies, and again no one should stand in their way, the evidence now shows that perhaps the blame can be found somewhere else other than Tony Stewart.