Will Tony Stewart be arrested and charged with murder?

On Saturday night at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park, Tony Stewart and Kevin Ward Jr were racing in a sprint cup race, which is raced on modified cars on a dirt track.  Although known for his success with NASCAR, Stewart, like other drivers, also participate in other races as well.  About half way through the race, Ward was spun out by Stewart.   Racing officials slowed the race with a yellow caution  flag and Ward got out of his car to confront Stewart who was still racing in his car.

It is undisputed that as Stewart approached Ward, Stewart’s right rear tire hit Ward, dragging him underneath and then throwing him down the track.  Ward was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.  Amateur video was posted to YouTube, taken down and has since been resposted.  While the video is tragic, it is important to view from a legal perspective.  Unfortunately, it does not show the entire track, just the part where Ward crashed and is then struck.

The incident is being investigated by Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero.  Stewart was questioned after the crash and the Sheriff indicated that he was fully cooperating.  He also described Stewart as visibly shaken by this accident and has indicated that he was not conducting a criminal investigation.

However, that hasn’t stopped many on various websites and social media to debate whether this was intentional and thus, whether Stewart will and/or should be charged with murder (or some other crime).   Some have suggested that Stewart has a history of playing very dirty, even more so than his reputation would suggest.  Some have suggested that while other cars slowed, he hit the throttle as he got close to Ward.  Others suggest that Ward is to blame by walking out into an active raceway.  The debate is fueled by those who are fans of Stewart or those that hate him for various reasons having nothing to do with this accident.   Thus, I decided to take an objective look at this issue to detail the various issues the District Attorney will face when deciding how to pursue this case.

1.  Celebrity Status

The first thing the DA will run into here is that if they decide to charge Tony Stewart is his celebrity status.  This will easily be the trial of the decade.  He has the money to assemble the next dream team.  Ontario County has a total population of 100,000 people.  Thus, this is small town America and with all due respect to the DA, they may find it very difficult to deal with the crush of publicity that such a prosecution would bring.  In addition, they may not have the manpower to handle the attack of Stewart’s dream team.  We can all debate as to whether or not celebrities get special treatment, but lets face it, it happens.

2.  Lack of intent

Stewart did not hit Ward with the front of his car; Ward was struck by the right rear tire as the car skidded out.  Clearly if one wanted to intentionally strike Ward, he would be run over with the front of the car.  More importantly, it would be obvious to anyone, but especially Stewart, that striking someone head on at high speed would surely cause serious injury if not death.  For one to believe that Stewart had such an intent would require Stewart to suddenly decide to throw his entire career away to possibly cause the death of another drive.  Stewart would have to suffer some type of psychotic break for this to happen and I based upon his reaction after the crash, this does not seem likely at all.

3.  Recklessness vs. invited risk

This seems like the best path for the DA to build a case but it is not without its own problems.    They will have to look at it this way: out of all of the cars on the track, why is it that Stewart’s car is the one that hit Ward?   Of course, one can argue that Ward was going to confront Stewart so he placed himself closer to his car. If I am the DA, I would want to see the entire lap. Did Stewart’s car go faster than the other cars or otherwise act differently?  When was Stewart able to see Ward out of his car?  Keep in mind that these cars are going fast and are not easy to control.  There are other cars on the track to look out for and the drivers are strapped in, have visors on their helmets and have limited neck movement.  Furthermore, the track doesn’t have a lot of room and you cannot just slam on your brakes like you can in a normal car.  One also doesn’t expect that drivers will start walking around on the track even under caution.

Once the DA can figure out when Stewart saw Ward, his actions at that point will be scrutinized millisecond by millisecond.  Does Stewart have a split second to react or more?  Some have argued on social media that Stewart saw Ward and was attempting to scare him or kick dirt on him which is why his car speeds up and skids out.  As a result, (if true) this was in fact an accident but one that was caused by Stewart acting recklessly.  So while Stewart did not act intentionally, his recklessness in attempting to get back at Ward for chasing after him caused the accident which led to Ward’s death.  While Ward would not be charged with murder (since same requires intent) he could be charged with a lesser form of homicide such as manslaughter.

However, just about every sporting event has a level of invited danger that is built into the participation of that sport.  Its the reason why football players are not charged when one player seriously hurts another.  In racing, it is expected that crashes will occur and sometimes, people get seriously hurt or even die.  Thus, it may be very difficult to prove that Stewart was acting recklessly when the very nature of racing on a dirt track involves bumps, spin outs and crashes with cars that are difficult to control.  Furthermore, Ward, a young but experienced driver, knew the dangers of walking on a track and approaching a speeding car.  A defense team would argue that the dangerous nature of the sport itself combined with Ward’s own conduct led to an unfortunate accident and that Stewart did not act recklessly.

4.  Stewart’s statement

The most crucial piece of evidence will be Stewart’s own statement.  It is impossible to get in the head of another person so police typically rely upon statements from the accused to build a case.  Here, Stewart spoke with law enforcement right away without an attorney present.  This statement will be scrutinized up and down to determine if he admitted to anything that can be used against him or if he lied.  For example, if he stated that he saw Ward and was attempting to kick dirt on him, that would help support a case for reckless homicide as indicated above.  However, if he indicated that he did not see Ward until the last minute and swerved to avoid him, that would help show that this was just an accident.  On the other hand, there may be other evidence such as a dash cam in Stewart’s car (that may or may not exist) that could show that his story is not accurate.  In that event, his lies will be used to show that he not only acted recklessly but he attempted to cover it up.

Conclusion

Its way too early to draw any conclusions as to what will happen here.  The DA will likely take its time to analyze every possible aspect of this case to either bring a good case against Stewart or to demonstrate that they did not give Stewart any special treatment by declining prosecution.

 

 

Story on Forbes is here

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Posted on August 10, 2014, in News and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. He tried to kick dirt in his face…then ran him over. Criminally negligent homicide.

  2. prisonerofthesystem

    I think your assumption regarding intent is faulty. You assume he lacks intent by suggesting intent required him to use the front of the car to strike Mr. Ward. You neglect to take into account Mr. Stewart’s knowledge of how sprint cars work in the conditions to which they are run. For instance, most people know you can “break a car loose” fish tail, if you stomp on the accelerator, particularly cars with high performance engines. That said, if that’s what he did, the outcome is predictable, as is striking Mr Ward as a direct result of Mr. Stewart stomping on the accelerator.

    • I wasn’t saying that intent requires someone to use the front of the car; just that doing that would be a good indicator. I just don’t see how the DA makes a case for purposeful murder. They would lose all credibility with the jury. The most they have is manslaughter but most likely criminal negligent homicide.

  3. Michael Marvin

    I am a paralegal out of Indiana. I am (or was) a Tony Stewart fan. Not now. I may not be an attorney, but have worked in law for a long time and know much criminal law. That being said; I feel after watching the video and being an avid racing spectator, that Stewart did in fact hit this young man either on purpose or tried to scare him which resulted in a death. You can plainly hear Stewart accelerate when going by Ward. Also Stewart had several altercations through the years with other drivers. Fist fights even. He has a horrible temper. I think he let his emotions get the best of him and Unfortunately it resulted in a young man losing his life. I believe there is plenty of evidence just in the amateur video and race video to prosecute him. I truly believe this was intentional and if we have any justice left in this country the D.A. WILL prosecute Tony Stewart. It sickens me to think I was actually a fan of Stewart for so long…..TONY STEWART! If you ever read this I pray that you WILL be prosecuted and that you DO go to prison for your horrible act and rage that killed a fine young man and wonderful racing competitor. SHAME ON YOU AND MAY GOD BE WITH YOU!!!!!!!!

  4. I’m just a simple former public defender, and good points by all here. But when I watched the video it seems to me that the rear of Tony’s car fishtailed to the inside/left hand side of the track. Perhaps this was actually an attempt by TS to actually avoid Ward ,or something Ward might throw like a helmet etc.,by using the accelerator. Remember Ward was on the outside/right hand side of TS’s car. TS being a trained driver this could be totally possible and perhaps a near automatic response. Hitting the brakes may have actually been worse because it might have resulted in a fishtail or slide toward Ward. This would especially be true with his steering wheel turned slightly to the left as it was perhaps was at that point in the lap. Speaking of steering, TS’
    s front wheels seem to turn sharply and quickly to the outside/right just after he passes ward who is now on foot. This seems to cause the rear wheels to fishtail to the inside/left. Was this intentional perhaps to set up the fishtail toward the inside/left to avoid Ward now standing on the outside? I don’t know, I can’t answer that but it would be interesting to hear some expert opinions on the driving techniques TS utilized in those milliseconds. My opinions are based solely on hot rodding in gravel parking lots and empty fields in my youth and I do not claim to be a trained driver..However, I remember hearing someplace that on dirt you turn left to go right and vice versa. And from my experience there is some truth to this with rear wheel drive and in the right conditions. Is there enough room for reasonable doubt to exist? I think a solid maybe. .

  5. There is no reason to assume there was any intent that Stewart wanted to kill another driver. Ward was stupid for leaving the safety of being in his car, getting out of the car and walking down into the racing groove. Tony may have tried to throw dirt on ward, but we can not tell my the video if ward advanced further toward Stewart.
    The original crash, in my opinion is caused by Ward, Tony sis a “slide job” and was ahead of Ward, Ward should have let off the gas and fallen in behind Tony and later try top pass him back.
    People do not understand how freaky these cars are, If I am correct they have the greatest horsepower to weight ration than Nascar or even Indy cars. That being said, has anyone seen an Indy car driver get out of the protection of his car and walk on down into the racing groove to point at a driver?
    This is just a sad set of circumstances.. A professional driver verses a relative young driver who did not recognize the danger he was putting himself into.
    People say Tony is a hot head, well Ward was one too, maybe even more than Tony by putting himself in the line of fire.
    May God Bless the Ward Family friends and fans, and mat God console Tony Stewart who will never ever be able to forget this tragic event. I would like to see Tony Stewart name the biggest Sprint car race at his track in Eldora, as the Ward Memorial event.

  6. I am indifferent. I watched with my eyes and listened with my ears. Ward messed with tony and was put into the wall. Ward messed with Tony a second time and he was killed. Every other driver missed Ward, and every other driver was off throttle because of the yellow flag. Tony went wide towards Ward and tried to roost Ward with dirt during a caution flag situation. Grand Jury is just deflection away so local authorities are off the hook. Grand Jury will be smoke and mirrors. Tony will never get charged. It’s all show for the TV now. My condolences to the Ward family, had this been reversed we know how bad Stewart’s family would of cried foul. Let’s not forget Tony will employ internet teams to write rebuttals for bad opinions, he is that big folks. Why does Ward’s website say’s it was made in 2014 and Ward is only 17, the media is saying he is 20? What is his real age?

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