Grand jury to decide if Tony Stewart will face criminal charges

A grand jury will decide whether NASCAR driver Tony Stewart should be charged in the death of a sprint car driver at a short track in upstate New York this summer.

A sprint car driven by Stewart struck and killed driver Kevin Ward, who was walking on the track at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park while the Aug. 9 race was under caution.

Ontario County, N.Y., District Attorney Michael Tantillo said in a statement Tuesday that evidence gathered by his office will be forwarded to a grand jury.

Tantillo said he could not say when the case will be scheduled with the grand jury, or who would be presented as witnesses.

Stewart, in a statement, said, “I respect the time and effort spent by both the Ontario County District Attorney and the Sheriff’s Office in investigating this tragic accident. I look forward to this process being completed, and I will continue to provide my full cooperation.”

A spokesman for Stewart’s team confirmed Tuesday that Stewart will compete this weekend at the Sprint Cup race in Loudon, N.H.

He missed three NASCAR Sprint Cup races after Ward died in New York, then has raced three times since. When he returned to race in Atlanta at the end of August, Stewart held an emotional press conference in which he said:

“This will affect my life forever. This is a sadness and a pain I hope no one ever has to experience in their life.

“I know the pain and mourning Kevin Ward’s family and friends are experiencing is something I can’t possibly imagine.”

The sheriff’s office said last week it had submitted what it described as a “thorough” investigation to the district attorney’s office for review, including a recently received forensic video enhancement completed by the New York State Police laboratory in Albany, N.Y.

The sheriff’s office has been in possession of at least two videos of the incident, only one of which has been viewed by the public.

According to a handbook from the New York State Unified Court System, a grand jury can vote to indict an individual if it finds sufficient evidence that a crime has occurred to take the case to trial. Otherwise, the case can be dismissed or the grand jury can direct the prosecutor to file information accusing the person of an offense less serious than a felony.

“The district attorney obtains physical and documentary evidence and evaluates that,” said Jennifer Rodgers, executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at New York’s Columbia University. “If there is enough evidence, that can go to the grand jury and witnesses can be presented, as well.”

Rodgers said New York has no hard and fast rules on whether a case can go to a grand jury.

“There is one wrinkle, especially in a case of a lot of public interest,” she said. “Sometimes a D.A. is making a decision knowing there are a lot of eyes on this. So he’ll say, ‘I’m not going to be the one to decide. I’ll let the grand jury decide.’ ”

The crash that killed Ward happened on a half-mile dirt track when Stewart’s car slid into Ward’s and pushed it into the wall. Ward’s car spun and hit the wall, and the race was placed under caution.

After the crash, Ward left his car, stepped quickly toward the infield and stood in the middle of the track, pointing in what appeared to be an accusatory way toward Stewart’s car coming toward him.

As Stewart approached Ward, his car appeared to speed up. Then the right side of Stewart’s car hit Ward, knocking him several yards down the track. Ward was pronounced dead on arrival at F.F. Thompson Hospital in Canandaigua.

“We are aware of the completed investigation and the announced next steps,” said NASCAR chief communications officer Brent Jewkes in a statement. “First, our thoughts continue to be with all who have been impacted by this tragedy. We will monitor this process and stay in close contact with Stewart-Haas Racing. It would be inappropriate for NASCAR to comment on this case so we will continue to respect the process and authorities involved.” Jim Utter contributed.