An Ontario County (N.Y.) grand jury ruled Wednesday that three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart will not face criminal charges resulting from the accident that killed young driver Kevin Ward Jr.
Ontario County (N.Y.) District Attorney Michael Tantillo announced the grand jury’s findings at a 3 pm ET press conference.
“The grand jury today has completed it’s investigation,” Tantillo said. “Approximately two dozen witnesses testified. … In addition, the grand jury reviewed a number of photographs and video recordings as well as a number of documentary evidence.
“After interviewing all of the witnesses and reviewing all the evidence, the grand jury has determined there is no basis to charge Tony Stewart with any crimes. This case was therefore no-billed by the grand jury.”
The grand jury considered two charges against Stewart for possible indictment, Tantillo said: “Manslaughter in the second degree and criminally negligent homicide. In New York state, it takes 12 or more votes of 23 grand jurors to return (indictment on) those charges. So while I can’t tell you what their votes were, you obviously can deduce the fact there were not 12 votes for either charge.”
Later, Tantillo added of the grand jury, “Their job was to determine whether or not, based upon all the evidence they heard, all the testimony they heard, whether there was reasonable cause to believe Tony Stewart had committed a crime, or not. Obviously, their vote was that they did not reach that finding.”
One surprising outcome of the investigation was that Ward was under the influence of marijuana at the time of the accident, according to Tantillo.
“There is toxicology evidence in the case relating to Kevin Ward that actually indicated at the time of operation, he was under the influence of marijuana,” Tantillo said. “There was no toxicology work performed on Tony Stewart. However, a certified drug recognition expert had interviewed him on the night of the collision and determined that he found no basis to observe any alcohol consumption or impairment by drugs.”
Tantillo later said, “The levels that were determined were enough to impair judgment, yes.”
Tantillo refused to say whether the grand jury determined Ward was at fault.
“The grand jury was never tasked with the responsibility of anything other than to determine whether there was enough evidence to file charges against Tony Stewart,” Tantillo said. “They were not considering whether anybody else was at fault.
“However, 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, and into the middle of other cars that were racing, played a big, big factor in their decision.”
Stewart was given the opportunity to testify to the grand jury, but Tantillo refused to say whether Stewart did or did not.
“I didn’t say he testified, I said he was given the opportunity,” Tantillo told a reporter who asked him that question. “I really can’t tell you specifically who testified or didn’t testify, and I can’t tell you what they said to the grand jury.”
Stewart’s celebrity had no impact upon the grand jury’s decision, Tantillo said.
“Obviously, it’s a high-profile case,” he said. “You more or less have a celebrity in the racing world as the focus of the inquiry. So, clearly, there was a high level of interest in the case. When all is said and done, that should not or did not make any difference in this particular case.”
Tantillo also praised the jury for its thorough review of the evidence and testimony.
“It was presented to a grand jury, all available evidence was forwarded to them, they were very conscientious in their work on this case, they were actively involved, they asked a lot of questions including some really excellent probing questions,” Tantillo said. “They were very deliberative and I’m very satisfied with the attention and conscientious work they put in on this case.”
After a review of evidence and a completed report gathered from a month-long probe by the Ontario County (N.Y.) sheriff’s office, Sheriff Philip Povero turned over his investigator’s findings and evidence collected to Tantillo’s office on Sept. 11.
Five days later, Tantillo decided to convene a grand jury to review the evidence and consider whether charges against Stewart were warranted or not.
The grand jury was convened Tuesday, Sept. 23, and needed less than one day to reach its decision to clear Stewart of any culpability in the incident.
“They deliberated after the last witness testifying for a significant amount of time before returning their judgment, less than an hour,” Tantillo said.
Investigators had two videos that showed the incident. One was posted to YouTube shortly after the accident, but the second video has never surfaced publicly.
“The second video was the racetrack’s own video,” Tantillo said. “They were relatively similar in what they showed. Actually, the racetrack video was a little higher quality. Those videos were examined in detail, they were enhanced, were run through programs that allowed the frames to be isolated … and they were a pretty important piece of the evidence that was considered here.”
Stewart’s sprint car struck and killed Ward during a caution period in a short track race on Aug. 9 at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, located about an hour north of Watkins Glen International.
Shortly after hitting the wall with his racecar, Ward exited the car and was coming down the racetrack in an apparent attempt to confront Stewart. The area where the incident occurred is dimly lit and Ward, of nearby Port Leyden, N.Y., was wearing an all-black firesuit.
As Ward approached Stewart’s car, at least one video that has been made public showed Stewart appeared to take evasive action but the right rear tire of his sprint car struck Ward, 20, who was pronounced dead approximately 45 minutes later at a local hospital. Cause of death was ruled blunt force trauma.
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