By now, most have heard of the tragic incident at the Canandaigua Motorsports Park. Most have seen the chilling amateur video. For those that have not, a sprint car driven by NASCAR driver Tony Stewart struck and killed another driver, Kevin Ward Jr. Ward exited his sprint car after crashing into the wall and walked out on the track screaming and pointing at Stewart. The car in front of Stewart narrowly avoided Ward, but unfortunately Stewart’s back right tire struck and killed Ward. In the aftermath of the tragedy, one of the main questions being asked is whether or not Stewart will or should face criminal charges. Up to this point, Ontario County Sheriff Phillip Povero has made it clear there is insufficient evidence to charge Stewart with any crime.
Hopefully Mr. Povero maintains his stance and is not swayed by those pointing to Stewart’s past temper tantrums and aggressive driving tactics as evidence of criminal intent. The video of the incident is being followed on many stations by footage of Stewart throwing his helmet or shoving a photographer. Though juvenile, these past outbursts of anger hardly paint the picture of a murderer. This is not to say Stewart is a model citizen or intended to suggest he is not aggressive on the track. Stewart has caused his fair share of wrecks in various races throughout his career while trying to get ahead of other drivers. He even admitted to causing a fifteen car accident in 2013 that left nineteen year old driver Alysha Ruggles with a compression fracture in her back. But such wrecks are a danger inherent in the sport of racing and Stewart’s part in them should not be taken to suggest he would hit a driver outside of his car with the intention of injuring or killing the driver. Even in the heat of competition, I do not believe Stewart would act in such a way.
To the same point, I hope Povero takes the accusations of Ward’s friend Tyler Graves for what they are: the angry words of a man who just lost a friend. Graves accused Stewart of targeting Ward and hitting him on purpose. Graves claimed that at the very least Stewart was trying to scare Ward by driving close to him. Despite Stewart’s aggressive nature on the track and occasional outburst, there is hardly anything in his past behavior or in the video footage of the incident to suggest this was in fact the case.
Unless other drivers come forward and corroborate Graves’s account or something as to this point unseen in the video does, there will be no way to charge Stewart with any crimes where intent must be proven. This takes murder in the first degree and manslaughter in the first degree off the table. Manslaughter in the second degree would require proof that Stewart acted recklessly by driving the way he did. According to the Model Penal Code, “a person acts recklessly with respect to a material element of an offense when he consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the material element exists or will result from his conduct. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that, considering the nature and purposes of the actor’s conduct and the circumstances known to him, its disregard involves a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a law-abiding person would observe in the actor’s situation.” Essentially what this means is to charge Stewart with manslaughter in the second degree the prosecution would either have to prove he was in fact trying to scare Ward or that a person similarly situated would have acted differently to avoid hitting Ward.
Both of these would be difficult to prove, especially considering Ward created the situation by exiting his car and walking out on to the track. Further, the track was not well lit and the car just ahead of Stewart avoided hitting Ward by a narrow margin. The prosecution would be hard pressed to find a person more similarly situated than the driver ahead of Stewart. The only realistic way a charge of manslaughter in the second degree would stick is if the prosecution could establish Stewart was in fact trying to scare Ward by driving close to him. They likely will not be able to establish this and I do not believe that was his intent, but if they could establish this intent the more logical charge would be murder in the second degree.
Stewart intentionally driving close to Ward to scare him and then killing him instead would be enough to at least charge Stewart with second degree murder. This would establish Stewart acted with a depraved indifference to human life. There is no evidence other than Graves’s words of such an intent, and Stewart almost certainly will not be charged with any of the offenses discussed above. The only possible criminal charge that may come from all this is one of negligent homicide. There is no intent requirement for this charge, but the prosecution would have to prove Stewart’s negligent driving caused Ward’s death. After watching the video more times than I ever wanted to, I believe Stewart reacted the best he could in the moment and I do not believe there is any evidence to support a charge of negligent homicide. Povero has echoed this sentiment in every public statement since the incident. Recently, Povero stated, “We have reviewed the investigation to this point with the Ontario County district attorney. At this very moment, there are no facts in hand that would substantiate or support a criminal charge, or indicate criminal intent on the part of any individual.”
Stewart may be sued civilly for wrongful death by Ward’s family and the outcome of such a suit is much harder to forecast. My instincts tell me any suit of that nature would be settled quickly for an undisclosed amount.
Ward’s death was undoubtedly tragic, but he exited his car and ran out on to the track. Drivers are supposed to remain in the car unless it is on fire after a wreck. Period. Stewart may be a hot head, but he is not a murderer. Hopefully, this tragic event prevents the next guy from exiting the car. Trying to blame Tony Stewart, however, just does not make any sense.