A grand jury in New York's Ontario County has taken less than an hour of deliberations to decide that three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart should not be indicted on any criminal charges relating to the death of Kevin Ward Jr. in an accident that occurred during a regional dirt track race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park on August 9.
"After listening to and questioning all of the witnesses, and reviewing all of the evidence, the grand jury has determined that there is no basis to charge Tony Stewart with any crimes," the district attorney Michael Tantillo announced on Wednesday. "His case was 'No-Billed' by the grand jury."
Ward died from blunt force trauma after being struck by Stewart's car, after the 20-year-old had walked back down to the track to remonstrate with Stewart following racing contact between the two which had put Ward out of the Saturday night sprint car competition.
The fatal accident was under investigation by the Ontario County Sheriff for over a month before the final report into the matter was submitted to the district attorney's office last week. Tantillo had then opted to present the case to the grand jury to decide on whether criminal charges relating to manslaughter in the second degree or criminally negligent homicide should be forthcoming against Stewart.
"When you have a case of this magnitude, of this interest, I think it's important that the public knows that a large group of citizens drawn at random from the community heard all the evidence in the case and collectively returned a judgement," he said, explaining his decision to submit the report to the grand jury rather than making the decision himself not to lay charges and adding that he himself hadn't gone into the grand jury process with any expectations either way about the possible outcome.
Wednesday's announcement about the grand jury decision revealed for the first time that Ward had been under the influence of marijuana at the time of the accident, in a quantity said to be sufficient to impair judgement according to the official toxicology report.
"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, into the middle of other cars that were racing, played a big, big factor in their decision," the district attorney added. "Realistically, I think judgement is probably the most important factor in this case.
"Mr Ward [Sr], I suspect, was probably disappointed by the outcome," Tantillo admitted. "But he was very appreciative of the work that the Ontario County Sheriff's Office and the District Attorney's office had put into the case."
The Ward family has since indicated that it could still file a civil suit against Stewart over their son's death, following a brief response to the grand jury decision given to the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle by Kevin's mother Pam.
"Our son got out of his car during caution when the race was suspended," read the statement. "All the other vehicles were reducing speed and not accelerating except for Stewart, who intentionally tried to intimidate Kevin by accelerating and sliding his car toward him, causing the tragedy. The focus should be on the actions of Mr Stewart. This matter is not at rest and we will pursue all remedies in fairness to Kevin."
In the event of a civil suit, the defence would be able to present evidence of both Ward's intoxication as contributory negligence and his assumption of risk by participating in the race to reduce any monetary damages awarded by a jury. The criminal process could be reopened only in the event of new evidence is found in which case the district attorney would need approval from a judge to re-open the case, and the grand jury would be able to consider charges only one more time.
However the district attorney appeared to directly rebut the family's suggestion that Stewart had intentionally steered his car to intimidate Ward. Among the evidence submitted to the prosecutor for use in the grand jury deliberations was forensically enhanced video footage of the accident, one version taken by a spectator and the other from the venue's own official record of the event.
"Those videos were examined in detail. They were enhanced. They were run through programs that allow the frames to be isolated," Tantillo explained. "They were run at 75, 50 and 25 percent speed. They were overlaid with grids and data and they were pretty important piece of the evidence here.
"The videos did not demonstrate any aberrational driving by Tony Stewart until the point of impact with Kevin Ward, at which his vehicle veered to the right, up the track as a result of the collision. Prior to that his course was pretty straight."
In addition to the video footage, the grand jury reviewed a number of photographs as well as other documentary evidence including interviews with sprint car racing experts and professionals.
"Approximately two dozen witnesses testified," revealed Tantillo. "These included a number of race car drivers, racetrack employees and volunteers, two accident reconstruction experts, medical personnel, and a number of police officers.
"There were varying versions of what actually had taken place," he added. "There was not one clear monolithic story presented to me. Additionally, several of the important witnesses chose not to make statements to the police. So, the only way I could find out what they had to say or what they had to offer was to subpoena them and compel them to testify, which I did."
Stewart missed three Sprint Cup Series races after being involved in the accident and was replaced by Regan Smith and Jeff Burton, but he finally returned to competition at Atlanta Motor Speedway at the end of August and has continued to race while the investigation was completed and the grand jury process took place.
"There are no winners in tragedy," said Brett Jewkes, NASCAR's Chief Communications Officer. "Our thoughts and prayers remain with the Kevin Ward Jr. family and Tony Stewart as they all cope with this tragic incident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park.
"This has been a difficult time for everyone involved and we have respected the local authorities responsible for reviewing this case," he added.
Although the race in which Ward died was not under NASCAR jurisdiction, the sanctioning body did revise its rules for the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series championships in the wake of the tragedy and now prohibits drivers from climbing out of a crashed or disabled vehicle until safety personnel arrive, except in the event of imminent danger from fire or smoke within the vehicle. Drivers are also banned from approaching other cars still running on the track.
As well as his driving duties behind the wheel of the #14 Chevrolet, Stewart is also co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing with Gene Haas, owner of the new Haas F1 Team team that will make its début in the FIA F1 World Championship in 2016 with Ferrari engines and technical support.
The SHR Sprint Cup team operates a four-car line-up consisting of Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick along with Stewart himself. Stewart and Patrick both missed the cut for the 2014 Chase that will decide this year's series champion, but Harvick and Busch are both still in contention for the title.
An indictment could have jeopardised the sponsorship deals backing the team, but this week's vindication by the grand jury means that Stewart will be able to get back to business as normal over the coming weeks - although Stewart himself was first to admit that this would be no easy task.
"This has been the toughest and most emotional experience of my life, and it will stay with me forever," said Stewart after the grand jury decision was announced. "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," he concluded.