Grand jury opts not to indict NASCAR's Tony Stewart in fatal incident

Grand jury clears Tony Stewart in death of driver Kevin Ward Jr.

A grand jury decided not to indict NASCAR’s Tony Stewart on any criminal charges in the death of driver Kevin Ward Jr., who was struck and killed by Stewart’s car while Ward was on foot during a sprint-car race last month, a prosecutor in New York state said Wednesday.

Ontario County Dist. Atty. Michael Tantillo also said that toxicology evidence showed the 20-year-old Ward “was under the influence of marijuana” at the time of the Aug. 9 race at levels “enough to impair judgment.”

But Stewart, 43, could still face a legal case. Ward’s family issued a statement hinting that it may file a civil suit, saying the family “will pursue all remedies in fairness to Kevin.”

Stewart, a three-time NASCAR champion, faced two possible criminal charges: second-degree manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide. But the grand jury found “no basis” to charge Stewart, Tantillo said.

The incident started when Ward’s car crashed into a fence as he was racing side by side with Stewart’s car at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, a half-mile dirt track, in a race that was unrelated to NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series.

Ward climbed from his car, walked on the track and appeared to be gesturing at Stewart when he was struck by Stewart’s car as Stewart circled back around. Ward was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

The event stunned the racing world and, thanks in large part to a graphic amateur video of the incident, sparked a national debate about who was at fault.

Enhanced versions of that video and of a second video taken by the race track were among the evidence presented to the grand jury, and both videos “were relatively similar in what they showed,” Tantillo said.

Although grand jury proceedings are secret, Tantillo said the panel heard from about 24 witnesses, including some drivers. He declined to say if Stewart testified but said Stewart “was given that opportunity.”

The grand jury met for two days and reached its decision in less than an hour, he said.

Tantillo also noted that the grand jury’s task was to determine whether Stewart should be charged with a crime and not to decide who was at fault.

Nonetheless, “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 in the middle of other cars that were still racing, played a big, big factor in their decision,” Tantillo said.

Hours later, Ward’s family said the “focus should be on the actions of Mr. Stewart.”

“Our son got out of his car during caution while the race was suspended,” the family’s statement 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.

“This matter is not at rest,” the family added.

Peter Mesich, a defense lawyer in San Diego who has been tracking the case, said “it’s very likely” the Ward family would file a civil suit against Stewart regardless of Tantillo’s saying that Ward had marijuana in his system.

In a civil case, Ward’s family would have its own lawyers and toxicology experts who might reach different conclusions, Mesich said.

In the meantime, “I wouldn’t expect Tony Stewart to say anything more than what he has stated,” Mesich said. “He’ll be keeping his cards close to his chest in fear that his words might be used against him in a civil case.”

After the grand jury’s decision was announced, Stewart said in a statement that the investigation “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,” Stewart said. “Kevin Ward Jr.’s family and friends will always be in my thoughts and prayers.”

The case was investigated by the office of Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero, which sent its findings to Tantillo, who presented the evidence to the grand jury.

Stewart, nicknamed “Smoke” and long known for his temperamental, brash demeanor, went into seclusion after Ward’s death and missed three NASCAR Sprint Cup races.

When he returned to the Cup series Aug. 31, a somber Stewart read a brief statement saying the incident would “definitely affect my life forever” and that the suffering of Ward’s family and friends was “something I can’t possibly imagine.”

And though the Canandaigua race was not a NASCAR-sanctioned race, NASCAR imposed a new rule sharply curbing drivers’ ability to get out of their cars and walk on a race track after they’ve crashed.

Stewart has driven in four Cup races since then and finished outside the top 10 in all four. The next Cup race is Sunday at Dover (Del.) International Speedway.

Stewart also co-owns his NASCAR team, Stewart-Haas Racing, and one of the team’s main sponsors, Mobil 1 motor oil, said Wednesday, “There has been no change in our sponsorship with Tony Stewart or Stewart-Haas Racing.”

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

12:19 p.m.: This story was updated with the grand jury's decision and information from the prosecutor.

It was originally published at 10:42 a.m.

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