Murto: Stewart’s case could linger

A grand jury in Ontario County, New York recently decided there was not enough evidence to prosecute Tony Stewart in the death of Sprint Car driver Kevin Ward Jr.

In early August, Stewart’s car struck Ward and killed him on a racetrack under caution during an ESS Sprint Car race after Ward got out of his wrecked car to express his anger with Stewart’s driving. The local sheriff’s office and state police investigated the accident, and found no reason for Stewart to be charged criminally.

But it still went to the grand jury. The only reason for sending it to the grand jury is that the district attorney acted as a spineless politician who didn’t want his political ambitions thwarted by his ruling. Sending the case to the grand jury mean the decision — whichever way they ruled — wouldn’t stick to him. It was the grand jury, after all, who made the decision.

Hopefully in the next election the residents of Ontario County elect a district attorney with enough spine to simply make the correct decisions.

Meanwhile, in the news conference to announce the grand jury decision, the district attorney revealed when asked that a toxicology report showed that Ward was driving with enough marijuana in his system to “impair his judgment.”

That wording is concerning. Yes, it’s true that marijuana can stay in your system for as many as three months, stored in your fatty tissue. But the statement wasn’t that he had a trace of marijuana in his system; the statement was that he had enough in his system to impair his judgment. The implication is that he was competing in a Sprint Car race while under the influence of marijuana.

It doesn’t matter how you feel about the issue of legalizing marijuana; alcohol is legal, but nobody would condone driving a race car under the influence of alcohol.

The grand jury convened to judge Tony Stewart’s actions, not Kevin Ward Jr.’s. Using enhanced video and a number of accident reconstruction experts, the grand jury determined that Stewart did absolutely nothing wrong. He did not swerve toward Ward to intimidate him, he didn’t try to run him over. In fact, in the original incident that angered Ward so much that he charged at Stewart’s car as it came by under caution, it appears that the cars made no contact whatsoever. Ward’s car jumped the cushion and wrecked.

We haven’t heard the entire story from Stewart, but it will not be surprising if he reveals that he didn’t even know Ward wrecked behind him. And when he drove through the corner under caution he had no idea Ward would be charging at his car.

The reason we haven’t heard from Stewart is that the possibility of a civil suit still hangs over his head; at this time it’s best he say as little as possible. Even after the grand jury ruling and the incriminating toxicology report, Ward’s parents stated that the issue is not settled and they plan to do what is right for their son.

I have not lost a child. I cannot imagine the pain the Ward family must feel. And I’m sure that type of pain is compounded when you learn that your son was the responsible party for his death. Stewart didn’t make Ward push hard as he was passed so that he jumped the cushion and wrecked. Stewart didn’t make him jump out of his car and charge a moving race car on the track. And it’s pretty certain Stewart didn’t provide Ward the marijuana that was in his system.

It seems that a civil suit will bring a lot of pain to all involved, but can’t hope to succeed. After all, if it goes to court, won’t the same accident reconstruction that exonerated Stewart with the grand jury be presented? And although the toxicology report may not have influenced the grand jury, you can bet that report will work in Stewart’s favor in a civil hearing.

The grieving parents of Kevin Ward Jr. will not be doing their son’s memory justice if they file a civil suit. Hopefully they’ll heal enough to make something positive come out of the entire experience. For example, a “Kevin Ward Jr. Foundation” that raised money to help local racetracks pay for random drug tests of competitors; that would be positive.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.

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