A grand jury declined to charge NASCAR driver Tony Stewart in the death of a sprint car driver at a short track in upstate New York this summer.
Michael Tantillo, district attorney for Ontario County, N.Y., announced the grand jury’s decision Wednesday afternoon. Tantillo had forwarded evidence gathered by his office and the county sheriff’s department to the grand jury.
The district attorney had submitted charges of second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide to the grand jury, which Tuesday began hearing evidence in the Aug. 9 incident. That night, a sprint car driven by Stewart struck and killed driver Kevin Ward Jr., who was walking on the track at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park while the race was under caution.
The grand jury heard from approximately two dozen witnesses, including drivers, track employees and volunteers, two accident reconstruction experts, medical personnel and police officers. They also reviewed photographs and enhanced video recordings.
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Tantillo said Wednesday the grand jury also was presented with toxicology results that showed Ward was under the influence of marijuana at the time of the incident, in high enough levels for impairment.
No toxicology tests were done on Stewart, Tantillo said, because in New York state law enforcement officials cannot compel the tests on a person not charged with a crime. Tantillo said Stewart was evaluated at the scene and medics determined there was nothing to suggest he was under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
“When I reviewed the investigation prepared by the sheriff’s department it was clear a number of witnesses interviewed had different perspectives on what they had seen and heard,” Tantillo said about his decision to take the case before the grand jury. “There was not one clear monolithic story that was presented to me.
“Additionally, several witnesses – important witnesses – elected not to make statements to the police. So, the only way I could find out what they had to offer was to compel them to testify, which I did.”
There were 23 New York citizens on the grand jury, and 12 of them would have had to find cause for charges to be filed against Stewart. The grand jury “no-billed” the case, ending the possibility of criminal charges. A civil suit is possible.
“This has been the toughest and most emotional experience of my life, and it will stay with me forever,” Stewart said in a statement after Wednesday’s decision was announced. “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.”
‘There are no winners’
NASCAR also released a statement. “There are no winners in tragedy,” it said. “Our thoughts and prayers remain with the Kevin Ward Jr. family and Tony Stewart as they all cope with this tragic incident.”
From Ward’s family’s house in Port Leyden, N.Y., his mother, Pam Ward, read a statement from the family as her voice quivered.
She said the family would pursue other legal “remedies.”
“My son got out the car during caution, while the race was suspended,” she said. “All the other vehicles were reducing speed and not accelerating, except for Tony Stewart, who intentionally tried to intimidate Kevin by accelerating and sliding his car toward him – causing this tragedy.
“The focus should be on the actions of Mr. Stewart and not my son. This matter is not at rest and we will pursue all remedies in fairness to Kevin.”
Pam Ward wouldn’t answer questions about what remedies the family planned to seek, or how they are doing. “Just the statement,” she quietly said.
Stewart sat out three NASCAR Sprint Cup races after Ward died, but he has raced four times since, starting at Atlanta. He pledged full cooperation with the investigation.
Stewart has yet to win a race this season and failed to qualify for the 16-driver Chase, which will determine the series champion. With eight races remaining, including Sunday’s AAA 400 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, Stewart is 26th in the standings.
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 at least two videos of the incident.
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.
Ward had left car
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.
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.
Staff writers David Perlmutt and David Scott contributed.