What’s next in the legal process after the arrest of Joe McKnight’s shooter?
Ronald Gasser, the 54-year-old man who shot and killed former New York Jets running back Joe McKnight last Thursday, has been arrested for manslaughter. Gasser and McKnight, 28, were involved in an incident at the intersection of two roads in Terrytown, Louisiana, when Gasser shot an unarmed McKnight in broad daylight.
Conflicting accounts have been offered, and theorized, about how and why the shooting occurred. On Tuesday, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand offered a detailed narrative of law enforcement’s assessment of what took place. The sheriff described Gasser and McKnight as engaged in a protracted road rage encounter that concluded with Gasser gunning down McKnight.
According to Sheriff Normand, the encounter likely began when, “at some point [while driving] Mr. McKnight may have cut off Mr. Gasser.” Being cut off apparently enraged Gasser, who then, according to the sheriff, “set out” against McKnight.
The two men then began a hostile and dangerous game of driving while confronting each other. It spanned several streets and involved both men “driving erratically” as they engaged in “verbal altercations, [driving] on each others’ tail, cutting in front of one another, zipping around vehicles and so on and so on.” The encounter would begin its conclusion when Gasser drove his car in front of McKnight at a red light. McKnight then pulled his car around to the right-hand side of Gasser’s car. At that point, Sheriff Normand indicates, Gasser’s car was “hemmed in” due to its placement on the road and surrounding cars, so Gasser had “no avenue for retreat as it relates to his vehicle.” The two men then continued their verbal quarrel with their car windows down.
McKnight then exited his vehicle and walked toward Gasser, as both men yelled at one another. Sheriff Normand declined to answer whether McKnight in any way entered Gasser’s car, but he did observe that McKnight was found “bent over” indicating that McKnight was looking “into [Gasser’s] car to go eye-to-eye with Mr. Gasser.” The sheriff also said McKnight and Gasser “were in a verbal encounter at the vehicle.” At some point while the two men screamed at each other in what appears to be close proximity, Gasser pulled his gun from between his seat and car console and fired three shots at McKnight, killing him.
While McKnight was unarmed, a gun was found in the car he was driving. However, Sheriff Normand revealed that McKnight’s stepfather owned both the car and the gun. According to the sheriff, there is “no evidence to suggest that [McKnight] insinuated” to Gasser that there was a gun in the car.
Gasser was questioned by police officers last Thursday and released last Friday. At the time of Gasser’s release, Sheriff Normand explained that Gasser had apparently fired his weapon while inside of his car. This led some to speculate that Gasser may have acted under the belief that he was defending himself.
As explained on SI.com, Gasser’s release last Friday did not mean he that would not be arrested, and now he has indeed been arrested. During Tuesday’s press conference, Sheriff Normand highlighted the state’s justifiable homicide law, which empowers persons, while in certain situations, to lawfully kill another person. He did so to insist that his office needed to conduct a close examination of the evidence before determining which charge, if any, would be appropriate to levy on Gasser.
As explained below, Gasser could ultimately face the more severe charge of second degree murder, the lesser charge of negligent homicide or no charge at all for McKnight’s death. If he stands trial, Gasser’s defense would highlight Louisiana’s justifiable homicide law and maintain that it allowed him to stand his ground against McKnight.
How prosecutors will try to prove Gasser is guilty of felony charge of manslaughter
Manslaughter is a serious offense, but is significantly lower in severity than murder. Under Louisiana law, manslaughter is defined as a homicide “committed in sudden passion or heat of blood immediately caused by provocation sufficient to deprive an average person of his self-control and cool reflection.” Whereas a murder conviction in Louisiana carries at least a life sentence in prison without parole—in fact, a first degree murder conviction can lead to the death penalty—a manslaughter conviction carries a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison. A defendant convicted of manslaughter rather than murder at least has hope that he or she will be released from prison during his or her lifetime.
To prove Gasser committed manslaughter, prosecutors will need to convince jurors that Gasser lost his temper and killed McKnight without justifiable reason. The two men clearly had a heated and protracted conformation prior to the shooting. Prosecutors will need to convince jurors that, due to sudden passion and feeling enraged, Gasser shot at Gasser. Notice that prosecutors do not need to establish that Gasser had planned to kill McKnight—manslaughter only requires showing that Gasser experienced rage and killed McKnight.
To bolster their case, prosecutors will rely in part on eyewitnesses who saw Gasser shoot McKnight and who can describe Gasser’s behavior and words prior to, and right after, the shooting. On Tuesday, Sheriff Normand said that his office has already “conducted more than 160 interviews” and “identified 260 folks that we had an interest in talking to based on license plate recognition camera hits of multiple cameras in the location of this particular happenstance.” The sheriff revealed that several witnesses have been identified as “key” to the case, but he will not reveal the specifics of their eyewitness accounts. However, Sheriff Normand acknowledged that the witnesses have provided remarks “that don’t completely square up with Mr. Gasser’s statement.”
The accuracy of eyewitness testimony is always a source of concern. Memories, as we can all attest, are imperfect. Sometimes eyewitnesses remember sequences of events in ways that are different from what actually took place. Sometimes eyewitnesses exaggerate or even outright lie. Sheriff Normand’s remarks last Friday, which portrayed Gasser as shooting at McKnight from inside Gasser’s car, contradict the account offered by one eyewitness. This eyewitness told The Times-Picayune she saw Gasser shoot McKnight and then walk over to a wounded McKnight on the ground and declare, “I told you don’t f— with me,” only to shoot McKnight again. Both last Friday and on Tuesday, Sheriff Normand categorically rejected this eyewitness account. Last Friday the sheriff stressed, “Mr. Gasser did not stand over Mr. McKnight and fire shots into him.” On Tuesday, Sheriff Normand said this same witness “lied” and the sheriff theorized it was because “some people wanted that [sensationalized] story to be true.” The same witness, Sheriff Normand observed, “told three different stories in a span of an hour,” thereby losing any and all credibility.
In addition to eyewitness accounts, prosecutors will rely on available physical evidence. Some of that evidence includes:
• Time of day and weather: The shooting happened at approximately 2:43 p.m. on a mostly sunny day. Gasser, therefore, was more likely to have a decent view of whether McKnight was armed, and of McKnight’s possible intentions, than Gasser would have had later in the day or if it was foggy.
• McKnight’s clothing: If it displays a gunpowder pattern, McKnight’s clothing could shed light on McKnight’s proximity to Gasser at the time of the shooting. The further McKnight was from Gasser, the less of an immediate threat McKnight may have posed to Gasser—and thus the less justification Gasser would have had to shoot McKnight.
• The autopsy report (or reports, plural, if McKnight’s family commissions an independent autopsy): According to authorities, Jefferson Parish Coroner Gerald Cvitanovich found that McKnight suffered three bullet wounds. Multiple bullets fired on an unarmed person could be interpreted as excessive if Gasser’s only objective was to defend himself.
• The casings: It appears the three bullet casings were found inside Gasser’s car, which—unless the casings were moved prior to their discovery—is consistent with Gasser firing at McKnight from within Gasser’s car. Gasser being in his car and presumably protected in it raises questions about why he thought McKnight posed such an imminent threat. On the other hand, as Sheriff Normand revealed, Gasser’s car was “hemmed in” at that time.
• Video or recordings of the shooting: Sheriff Normand told media on Tuesday that there does not appear to be any video or recordings of the incident. He and his staff reached out to over 70 business owners in attempts to retrieve video, but didn’t have any luck. Now five days after the incident, still no video or recording has emerged, which suggests that none probably will. Still, it is possible than an eyewitness recorded the incident on his or her phone and hasn’t yet shared it with law enforcement.
• Crime scene reenactments: On Tuesday, Sheriff Normand indicated that he and his staff have conducted multiple reenactments of the incident between Gasser and McKnight. These reenactments are critical in prosecutions that contain crucial facts that were not visually or audibly recorded. The reenactments utilize scientific methods and expert analysis to try to recreate what took place.
• Text messages and phone calls: If Gasser texted or called anyone after the shooting, or if McKnight communicated with others about his incident with Gasser before Gasser shot him, prosecutors would be able to paint a more complete picture of the events. Similarly, if eyewitnesses texted or called, their “present sense” impressions of the incident taking place would be valuable.
Gasser will argue it was justifiable homicide
Approximately 33 states, including Louisiana, have adopted stand-your-ground laws. These laws allow a defendant to argue that the use of deadly force was justified in defense against a grave threat or a perceived grave threat. Stand your ground laws vary in important ways by state, but they dispense of any requirement that a person retreat, even when it is safe to do so. In Louisiana, a defendant who was in a car can, if presented with a grave threat, claim justifiable homicide.
Gasser will argue that McKnight posed an immediate threat. According to Sheriff Normand, McKnight exited his car and approached Gasser, whose car had no means to escape. McKnight appeared to have done so while the hostilities between he and Gasser were escalating. McKnight’s proximity to Gasser is crucial. If McKnight had been standing right at Gasser’s window and was trying to get into the car, Gasser would have a stronger defense. If, instead, McKnight had been standing several feet away, he would have posed less of an immediate threat.
Gasser will also stress that not only was there no means for his car to escape, but he had no duty under Louisiana’s justifiable homicide law to retreat. Thus, even if it was possible that Gasser could have exited his car and safely left the scene, he had no legal obligation to do so.
Gasser’s defense will also depend on his impressions of McKnight. We don’t know if Gasser—mistakenly—thought McKnight was armed, though Sheriff Normand says that McKnight did not tell Gasser that there was a gun inside McKnight’s car (owned by McKnight’s stepfather). If Gasser chooses to testify in his own defense, Gasser will need to debunk the prosecution’s theory that he simply lost his temper in the heat of passion and started firing, and instead insist that he justifiably shot McKnight to protect himself.
In a trial, Gasser’s attorney would also highlight that Gasser fully cooperated with law enforcement following the shooting. According to Sheriff Normand, Gasser answered all questions and voluntarily consented to a search of his home despite law enforcement lacking probable cause to conduct that search.
Gasser could later face a different charge than manslaughter
While Gasser has been arrested for manslaughter, he could face trial for a different charge. Under Louisiana law, prosecutors now have 60 days (or 120 days if Gasser posts bond) to charge Gasser. He could be indicted with manslaughter, but if evidence and eyewitness testimony ultimately dictate that a different charge would be more appropriate, Gasser could be indicted with a different crime. He could be indicted with a more severe charge, such as second degree murder—if convicted, he would be sentenced to life in prison without a chance for parole—or with the lesser charge of negligent homicide, a conviction for which imposes up to 5 years in prison. Prosecutors could also assemble a grand jury that reaches a different conclusion and return a “no bill,” which means that they wouldn’t indict Gasser at all. Time will tell. As Sheriff Normand observed on Tuesday, “this case is still maturing—we may get additional evidence that would allow the district attorney to up charge or additional evidence that might compel the district attorney to down charge.”
If Gasser goes to trial, jury selection will be difficult
A trial of Gasser would attract attention for different reasons. Whether unlawfully or lawfully, he killed a former NFL player. Race is also an important dynamic. Gasser is white and McKnight was African-American. The shooting of unarmed African-American men has recently generated substantial discussion in the United States. Gasser’s trial would be followed and discussed within this broader context.
For his part, Sheriff Normand says the death of Joe McKnight “is not about race.” The sheriff highlights how “not one witnesses” claims that either Gasser or McKnight used a racial slur during their confrontation. Sheriff Normand regards the case as being about “two people” engaged in “bad behavior.”
Still, should there be a trial, the presiding judge would surely be sensitive to the broader context of the case. Along those lines, the judge would carefully scrutinize potential jurors to ensure they would have an open mind while serving as jurors. It is a possibility that the jurors would be sequestered during the trial. Jurors in the New Orleans trial of Cardell Hayes, who is accused of murdering former New Orleans Saints defensive end Will Smith, have been sequestered. Also, as in the Hayes trial, prosecutors would not need a unanimous verdict to convict Gasser: under Louisiana law, a criminal conviction can be obtained with the support of 10 of the 12 jurors.
Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also a Massachusetts attorney and a tenured law professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.