What exactly happened on Saturday night at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, when Kevin Ward Jr. left his car and met his untimely end? Was his death an accident? Was it a scare tactic gone wrong? Or was it a terrifying result of Tony Stewart’s legendary temper?
The fact that Ward died has been somewhat overshadowed by this question. In the search for answers, we are likely glossing over the tragedy that could have and should have been avoided. But since nothing can bring Ward back now — especially not admonishing him for leaving his car in the first place, which many have done — we turn our attention to this likely un-answerable question (based on the evidence we have now, at least).
Because the media, for the most part, have no idea how to discuss the particulars of racing — from the technical aspects to the rivalries and emotions that may be involved — a lot has been made of Stewart’s history as a “hot-head” in lieu of discussing relevant information. Here’s a clip from a discussion on Fox News this morning:
Is this clip of Stewart getting into a fight with a completely different driver, in a completely different situation, relevant in the slightest? No, but showing it replaces having to make sense of a potentially nonsensical act. Plus, it keeps the talking heads from admitting they don’t know what they’re talking about. (At the end of the clip: “People who know about that thing are going to have to speak to it.” Indeed.)
But Fox News wasn’t the only outlet to go this route. Here’s CNN:
At this point, there’s no reason to believe that Stewart would go out of his way to kill or otherwise harm his competitor — no reason except that he’s got a temper and has built his brand on being a bad boy, as Rachel Nichols reminds us. Furthermore, as the sheriff of Ontario Country noted in a press conference today, “There are no facts that exist that support any criminal behavior or conduct or any probable cause of a criminal act in this investigation.”
In New York (among many other states), the Molineux rule prevents cases from including “a defendant’s propensity to commit the crime charged” as evidence. There are exceptions to this rule — for example, if a pitcher hit five guys in a row, kills the last one and claims it was an accident, evidence of his propensity for throwing at batters may be considered at his trial to prove his intent to bean the guy or to disprove his claim that it was an accident.
That’s not the case here. It’s not as if Stewart has a history of nearly clipping drivers standing on the road, or fighting with Ward specifically, or killing people — the only relevant part of his history, according to multiple outlets, is that he’s a nasty guy. He fights guys who piss him off.
We lack of evidence in this case: no clear video besides the original has emerged; Stewart didn’t have a mini-camera mounted on his car as he sometimes does; we don’t know how visible Ward may have been to his fellow drivers when he walked onto the track. But we can’t fill that void with anecdotes of Stewart’s rage from the past. It’s unfair to a man who has to live with blood on his hands for the rest of his life, and it’s unfair to the legal process that should protect him if he is innocent.
Even if he’s not innocent of driving without malice, bringing up incidents from 2002 (as another Fox News segment did) does nothing to bolster the case. It won’t be admitted into evidence. Time to find a new way to discuss this tragedy. May I suggest starting with the victim?
Photo via Getty