Tony Stewart’s case heads to grand jury

NASCAR auto racing driver Tony Stewart reads a statement during a news conference at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga., Friday, Aug. 29, 2014. Stewart says the death of Kevin Ward Jr. will "affect my life forever" as he returned to the track for the first time since his car struck and killed the fellow driver during a sprint-car race in New York. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – A grand jury will decide whether NASCAR driver Tony Stewart will be charged in the death of a fellow driver at a sprint car race last month.  I-Team 8 first broke the story.

The district attorney in Ontario County New York says after reviewing the evidence collected by the sheriff’s department he is going to hand it over to a grand jury.

In August, Stewart’s car hit and killed Kevin Ward junior at a dirt track in upstate New York.  The 20-year-old’s car spun out while racing alongside Stewart.  Ward got out of the car and angrily walked down onto the track at Canandaigua Motorsports Park to confront Stewart when he was hit.

Ontario County New York district attorney Michael Tantillo could have determined there wasn’t enough evidence and dropped the case.

In a statement he says grand jury proceedings in New York are “strictly confidential,” so he can’t disclose who will be called as a witness or when the grand jury will hear the case. He says he will advise the media and public when the grand jury has a decision.

There are two key videos of the accident from two different angles.  Last week, the Ontario County Sheriff’s Department said “thorough” their investigation, which included a “forensic video enhancement”.

Stewart spent three weeks in seclusion at his home in Columbus, Indiana after the accident before returning to racing.

After it was announced Tuesday it would be handed to a grand jury, Stewart issued a statement saying he respects “the time and effort investigating this tragic accident” – he looks forward to the process being completed and will cooperate.  His attorney Jim Voyles, wouldn’t comment on an open case.

Full statement from Tony Stewart: 

I respect the time and effort spent by both the Ontario County District Attorney and the Sheriff’s Office in investigating this tragic accident. I look forward to this process being completed, and I will continue to provide my full cooperation.

Full statement from Michael Tantillo, Ontario County District Attorney:

Over the past several weeks I have reviewed with members of the Ontario County Sheriff’s Department their investigation, as it progressed, in the Tony Stewart matter. Recently that office concluded its work and forwarded the complete case file to me. Upon my review of all of the information contained in the entire investigation, I have made the determination that it would be appropriate to submit the evidence to a grand jury, for their determination as to what action should be taken in this matter. Accordingly, the evidence developed in the investigation will be presented to an Ontario County grand jury in the near future.

As grand jury proceedings in New York State are strictly confidential by law, I am unable to state when the matter will be scheduled, other than to state that I intend to present the matter in the near future. Similarly, because of the confidential nature of these proceedings, I cannot state who will be called as witnesses, or what any witness’s expected testimony will be. When the presentation has been completed and a determination has been made, I will advise the public and the media at that time of the results.

According to True Speed Communication, Tony Stewart will race in this weekend’s race in New Hampshire.

We asked legal experts what this could mean for Stewart.

Indianapolis attorney John Tompkins says it appears the district attorney in New York may be pursuing a felony charge. He says in order to pursue a felony indictment in New York, the district attorney has to go to a grand jury.

“I would assume, if the district attorney has chosen to pursue a grand jury indictment, he thinks he has a strong enough case to get the indictment returned,” explained Tompkins.

Tompkins added he’s only seen the video evidence that’s been made public, but he says with that evidence, “Unless there’s something other than the video we all saw over and over and over, it would seem to me it would be very difficult to prove there was any sort of criminal intent associated with that horrible event.”

Derek Daly, former race car driver and WISH-TV racing analyst, says the entire racing community has been impacted by the tragedy.

“I think the racing community was impacted with this incident, not just NASCAR but IndyCar, because there’s a bit of a family that’s embraced Tony Stewart, because he’s a homegrown product, and we live through him and his success,” said Daly. “We’ve all felt the impact. We will feel the impact of the grand jury decision, probably, in one way or the other. The hope then is that the family of this great, colorful, energized sport, can be potentially stronger from what is learned from this, and that the sport can somehow grow despite the difficulty.”

We also spoke with past Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon. He says drivers and others in the racing family do talk about the situation, but he says there’s no clear opinion about exactly what happened during the deadly collision.

“It’s always very hard to understand what happened,” Dixon said.  “You or I are not going to know. Tony and everybody involved will understand the situation a little bit better. It’s awful to see and definitely a tragedy that we don’t want to see re-occur in the future.”

Dixon added, “You can’t jump to conclusions. I’m sure there was a lengthy investigation to try to understand what happened, whether anyone was in the right or the wrong. For us as racers and the community, we love the sport. We want the sport to thrive. So we don’t want to see instances like that. All we can do is try to improve on that, and hopefully in the future it’s not something we have to talk about.”

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