Intent is one of the most difficult things to prove in court, particularly if there is no premeditation or it’s clear beyond a reasonable doubt that an assumed blatant and overt act has not been committed.
That’s why the Ontario County (N.Y.) grand jury on Wednesday really had no other choice but to absolve Tony Stewart of any blame in the tragic accident that took the life of young sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr.
As District Attorney Michael Tantillo said in a press conference, the grand jury that was convened to review all of the evidence, witness statements and sheriff’s office investigatory reports could not reasonably conclude that Stewart – who could have been charged with manslaughter in the second degree or criminally negligent homicide – was at fault in Ward’s death.
MORE: Grand jury: Tony Stewart will not face charges, Kevin Ward Jr. under influence of marijuana at time of accident
Granted, the startling revelation that Ward was under the influence of marijuana at the time of the incident may have had some swaying effect upon the jury.
“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. “…The levels that were determined were enough to impair judgment, yes.”
But it was Ward’s own actions that directly led to enough reasonable doubt to effectively clear Stewart of any culpability.
“However, I am sure from (the grand jury’s) 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,” Tantillo said.
Which brings us back to intent.
Almost immediately after the August 9th incident, social media erupted into countless reactionary tweets, Facebook posts and the like ranging from Stewart was completely innocent to he was destined to have a long prison sentence.
MORE: Tony Stewart, NASCAR react after he’s cleared by grand jury in Kevin Ward Jr. death
Interspersed with many of those comments was the belief by some that Stewart may have intentionally intended to scare Ward, or perhaps to kick up dirt to shower Ward for getting out of his racecar and intentionally coming down the racetrack in some inane attempt to confront Stewart for forcing Ward into a retaining wall and wrecking his car on the previous lap.
If that were the case, it wouldn’t be the first time something like that has happened in dirt track racing – and likely won’t be the last. Racers oftentimes like to intimidate and teach other racers a lesson for any perceived injustice or for challenging them.
Yet through all of the days that followed the tragic incident of August 9, until Stewart was cleared by the grand jury on Sept. 24, there was never any concrete indication that Stewart indeed attempted to show up or scare Ward for his attempt to potentially challenge the NASCAR star.
Think about it, what would Stewart, a multi-millionaire and with one of the most public personas in NASCAR and motorsports as a whole, have to gain by intentionally striking – or at the very least – put a scare into Ward or to try and hit him with flying dirt?
This was not a Cup race. Rather, it was on the most basic of racetracks, on the grassroots level where drivers do all kinds of things to each other, from running opponents into the wall to slinging dirt and mud in their face.
MORE: D.A.: Varying witness accounts likely convinced grand jury of Tony Stewart’s innocence
Stewart wasn’t being a bully that night and trying to kick proverbial sand – in this case, dirt – in Ward’s face.
Rather from all indications, Stewart – who competes in sprint car races for the sheer enjoyment of it (some call it a hobby) – was merely trying to get out of the way of Ward, who was coming down the racing surface on a still-hot track, just like Tantillo said, in a dimly lit portion of the racetrack and while wearing an all-black firesuit that likely blended into the background.
Stewart was likely startled when, as he came out of Turn 1 and into Turn 2, suddenly Ward appeared in front of him. Stewart likely had no other choice but to react in what is perhaps one of the most unnatural reactions in the world: to gain enhanced steering and have added maneuverability for a sprint car, a driver has to hit the gas.
It may not seem logical in any other form of racing, but in sprint car racing, that’s how you gain better turning viability to avoid something that’s in front of you such as another car – or a driver seemingly hell-bent on giving you a piece of his mind for an incident that occurred one lap earlier.
The resulting acceleration allows the steering to react and potentially let a driver steer clear of whatever he’s trying to avoid. In this case, Stewart trying to avoid Ward.
But as the 20-year-old Ward continued his march down the racetrack, he made the fateful mistake of not getting out of Stewart’s path. It was that same mistake that ultimately led to his death.
There’s an old saying that two wrongs don’t make a right, but two wrongs by Ward did indeed make a right for Stewart in this case, as the grand jury ultimately decided.
And as it turned out, yes, there was plenty of intent in this case that was ultimately proved: That Ward was found to be intentionally high while racing, plus he intentionally left his racecar with the misguided intention to confront Stewart.
Really, what other choice did the grand jury have but to clear Stewart?
Follow me @JerryBonkowski