DA: Videos do not show Stewart driving recklessly in fatal accident
By Al Pearce, Crain News Service
ONTARIO COUNTY, N.Y. (Sept. 26, 2014) — New York District Attorney Michael Tantillo said Sept. 24 that neither of the enhanced videos from last month's Sprint Car race in upstate New York shows Tony Stewart driving recklessly when his car hits and kills Kevin Ward Jr.
In clearing Mr. Stewart of criminal charges, Mr. Tantillo said a second, unreleased video shows “no aberrational driving” by Mr. Stewart. He added, “[The two tapes] were pretty important pieces of evidence.”
The county's 23-person grand jury heard testimony Sept. 23 and part of Sept. 24 before deciding that Mr. Tantillo didn't have enough evidence to indict Mr. Stewart for Mr. Ward's death on Aug. 9 at Canandaigua Motorsports Park.
If indicted, the three-time NASCAR champion could have faced charges of second-degree manslaughter or criminal negligent homicide. Although cleared of criminal charges, he will almost surely face a civil suit from Mr. Ward's family.
For a video of the Tony Stewart incident that led to the death of Sprint Car driver Kevin Ward, click here.
The 20-year-old Mr. Ward was killed during an Empire Super Sprints race on the small, slick and damp clay track. He climbed from his car after wrecking with Mr. Stewart, stormed down the turn 2 banking and ran toward Mr. Stewart as his car came around under caution. The driver immediately ahead of Mr. Stewart barely avoided Mr. Ward, but the right side of Mr. Stewart's car struck Mr. Ward and flung him up the track. He was pronounced dead of blunt-force trauma upon arrival at a nearby hospital.
Before taking questions, Mr. Tantillo made this statement:
“This week, an Ontario County grand jury has been meeting to hear testimony and review evidence gathered in the Tony Mr. Stewart matter, relating to the death of Kevin Ward. The grand jury has completed its investigation. During the course of the presentation, approximately two dozen witnesses testified. These included a number of race-car drivers, racetrack employees and volunteers, two accident reconstruction experts, medical personnel and a number of police officers.
“The grand jury reviewed a number of photographs and video recordings, as well as other documentary evidence. After listening to and questioning all of the witnesses, and reviewing all of the evidence, the grand jury has determined there is no basis to charge Tony Mr. Stewart with any crimes.”
The announcement came shortly after the grand jury heard its last witness and deliberated for less than an hour. Ontario County sheriff Philip Povero and his staff had conducted a 32-day investigation, beginning the morning after the accident. Mr. Tantillo and his staff had examined the case for six days before the grand jury convened on Tuesday. As district attorney, he could have brought charges himself or dropped the case. Instead, he said the grand jury should make that call.
During a Q&A session Sept. 24, he said Mr. Ward was “under the influence of marijuana at the time of his death” and the marijuana in his system “was enough to impair judgment.” Mr. Stewart did not undergo a toxicology test, but Mr. Tantillo said a “certified drug recognition expert” had interviewed Mr. Stewart the night of the accident “and found no basis to observe any alcohol consumption or impairment by drugs.”
Mr. Tantillo addressed the mysterious “second” video—the one the public still hasn't seen. The first video, he said, is “the one everyone has seen posted on YouTube.” He said the second video belonged to the speedway. “[The videos] were relatively similar in what they showed,” he said.
He added that “the track video was of a little higher quality. They were examined in detailed and enhanced and were pretty important pieces of evidence. Prior to hitting Kevin Ward, (Mr. Stewart's) path was pretty straight.”
He also said that after listening to the grand jury's discussions, he felt certain Mr. Ward's actions played a role. “The fact he was observed running basically down two-thirds of the way down the track onto a hot track, in the middle of other cars still racing, played a big, big factor in their decision.”
Mr. Stewart still hasn't fielded questions from the media about the accident. On Sept. 24, following Mr. Tantillo's announcement, he issued this statement:
“This has been the toughest and most emotional experience of my life, and it will stay with me forever. I'm very grateful for all the support I've received and continue to receive. 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.”
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