An Ontario County, New York, grand jury has cleared NASCAR driver Tony Stewart of any criminal charges. The official announcement came at 3 p.m. ET Wednesday afternoon, just over 24 hours since the case was first presented to them.
On Aug. 9, Stewart was racing a sprint car at Canandaigua Motorsports Park when he appeared to tangle with the car of Kevin Ward, Jr., sending Ward’s car into the outside barrier. Ward then exited his vehicle and approached Stewart’s machine as the cars circled the track under caution. Ward was struck by the right rear wheel of Stewart’s car and thrown several yards down the track. Ward was pronounced dead at a local hospital shortly afterward. There was some speculation that Stewart had intentionally steered toward Ward as he walked across the track, or tried to throw dirt off his rear wheels toward the other driver.
According to Ontario County District Attorney Michael Tantillo in a press conference that aired on both ESPN and FOXSports1 and local stations, the grand jury, after seeing evidence which included enhanced video of the incident between Stewart and Ward, documents and photographs and two dozen experts and witnesses, quickly cleared Stewart of criminal wrongdoing.
According to toxicology reports, said Tantillo, Ward had marijuana in his system at the time of his death, and the levels indicated were high enough to impair his judgment that night. The grand jury declined to charge Stewart with either second degree manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide, the two possibilities with which they were presented.
“The videos were examined in detail… The videos did not demonstrate any aberrational driving by Tony Stewart until the point of impact with Kevin Ward, at which point his vehicle veered to the right up the track as a result of the collision.” said Tantillo. “Prior to that, his course was pretty straight.”
Tantillo went on to explain that, while the grand jury was not tasked with finding fault with anyone other than Stewart, “I am sure, from their deliberations and discussions that the fact that Kevin Ward was observed running basically down two thirds of the track into a hot track in the middle of other cars that were still racing, played a big factor in their decision.”
According to Tantillo, one major reason that the case was sent to the grand jury because of varying statements or lack of statements from several witnesses. The hearing allowed those witnesses to be subpoenaed in order to get their testimony under oath.
What this means is that the grand jury, made up of a group of citizens, has determined that there is not enough evidence of any criminal activity or intent to proceed with charges or a trial. Stewart will not face a criminal record or any related imprisonment or fines. He could still face a civil trial if Ward’s family chooses to sue him for wrongful death, and if found guilty there, could have to pay a sum of money to the family in retribution. A civil lawsuit could also be settled out of court if both sides agree on a monetary amount to be paid to the family.
Following the incident, NASCAR issued a mandate to drivers to stay in their cars after a crash to avoid a similar incident.
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