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DA to reveal Stewart case findings

CANANDAIGUA, N.Y. -- Prosecutors in upstate New York said a grand jury was finished hearing testimony regarding Tony Stewart's role in the on-track death of sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr. and its decision would be announced Wednesday.

Ward was killed Aug. 9 when a car driven by the three-time NASCAR champion struck and killed him during a dirt track race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park. The 20-year-old Ward, who had climbed from his car to confront Stewart, died of blunt force trauma.

Ontario County District Attorney Michael Tantillo looked at the evidence and could have brought charges or dropped the case himself, but said last week he was taking the matter to a grand jury that was convened this week.

Experts said Stewart could be charged with second-degree manslaughter under New York law if prosecutors believe he "recklessly caused the death of another person," with negligent homicide another possibility.

Authorities said the first car to pass Ward had to swerve to miss hitting him. The front of Stewart's car appeared to clear Ward, but Ward was struck by the right rear tire and hurtled through the air. His father later told a newspaper there was "no reason" for the death given Stewart's skills and experience.

Sheriff Philip Povero asked spectators to turn over photos and videos of the crash as investigators worked to reconstruct the accident. Among the things being looked at were the dim lighting, how muddy it was and whether Ward's dark firesuit played a role in his death, given the conditions. In submitting his findings to the district attorney, Povero said they included a "forensic video enhancement" from state police.

Stewart issued a brief statement expressing deep sadness for Ward's death and then skipped three races before returning late in the Sprint Cup's regular season.

After Ward's death, NASCAR announced a rule that prohibits drivers from climbing out of a crashed or disabled vehicle -- unless it is on fire -- until safety personnel arrive. The series also cleared the way for Stewart to make its Chase for the Sprint Cup championship with a win, despite missing the three races, but he didn't make the 16-driver field.

There have been very few criminal prosecutions stemming from incidents that occur during competition.

There have been two cases in the last 14 years in which NHL players were charged for their actions on the ice. Marty McSorley was convicted of assault with a weapon for hitting Donald Brashear with a stick during a 2000 game, and Todd Bertuzzi pleaded guilty to assault causing bodily harm for punching Colorado's Steve Moore in 2004.

But it's extremely rare for incidents during auto races to bring police scrutiny and Povero emphasized that his was an "on-track crash investigation."

Research by The Associated Press dating to 2003 turned up no cases in which a driver was charged for his role in an on-track incident. Team owner James Sink was found guilty of misdemeanor assault of driver Maynard Peters after a bloody 2005 post-race fight in North Carolina. In 2003, NASCAR driver Jimmy Spencer was under investigation for assault after punching Kurt Busch in the face following a race at Michigan, but Busch asked for his complaint to be dropped.

Legal experts believe the case against Stewart would be difficult to prove -- even to a grand jury, which needs only 12 of the 23 members to agree that charges are warranted.

"I think the DA has succumbed to public attention and public pressure on this one, there was just too much notoriety, and that's why he took it to a grand jury," said David Weinstein, a former state and federal prosecutor in Miami who is now in private practice.

He said it would be difficult to prove criminal intent in Ward's death.


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