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Sentencing of Ronald Gasser set for March 15

5th February 2018   ·   0 Comments

After an eight-day trial and more than seven hours of deliberation, a Jefferson Parish jury on Jan. 26 convicted 56-year-old Ronald Gasser of manslaughter in the Dec. 1, 2016 killing of former NFL player Joe McKnight.

Sentencing has been set for March 15. Gasser faces a sentence of zero to 40 years.

The road-rage incident made national headlines in part because it was the second deadly road-rage incident involving a former NFL player in the New Orleans area in 2016 and because the victim was Black and the shooter was white. The fatal shooting occurred just months after police shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castille near Minneapolis, Minnesota led to the killing of three Baton Rouge police officers and five Dallas, Texas law enforcement officers.

The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office came under fire after it didn’t immediately arrest Gasser after the fatal shooting.

He was arrested four days after the incident and initially charged with manslaughter. That charge was later upgraded to second-degree murder.

During closing arguments, prosecutors and defense lawyers argued that the day of the shooting was one of a challenge versus a choice.

“This was a challenge on the bridge. He (Gasser) felt Mr. McKnight challenged him on the bridge,” prosecutor Seth Schute told the jury. “Gasser said, ‘I’m not going to let it go.’ If either of them had let it go, we wouldn’t be here today.”

Matt Goetz, Gasser’s attorney, told the jury that McKnight chose to pursue his client.

“(Mr. McKnight) chose to drive like a maniac. He chose to almost run Ronnie off an embankment,” Goetz said. “Joe McKnight makes the fatal choice to scream obscenities, scream threats, then get in my client’s car.”

Gasser said he shot McKnight after the former football player “lunged” in his blue Infiniti when the men stopped at the Terrytown intersection.

Physical evidence at the crime scene indicated that Gasser shot McKnight three times from his driver’s seat as McKnight rested his left hand on Gasser’s passenger-side window.

Prosecutor Shannon Swaim told the jury, “Someone is dead, and they’re not coming back, and that’s a big, big deal He’s dead because of the choices Mr. Gasser made.”

Shortly before that, Goetz said his client had no choice but to react the way he did.

“What do you think he (McKnight) was going to do when he went to that window?” he asked the jury. “Invite him to tea?”

The defense presented no witnesses during the trial, despite the prosecution telling the jury of a similar road-rage incident involving Gasser 10 years earlier at the same intersection where the deadly shooting took place.

After McKnight allegedly cut off Gasser on the Crescent City Connection, a five-mile chase ensued which ended at the intersection of Behrman Highway and Holmes Boulevard in Terrytown.

The Jefferson Parish jury, which began its deliberations after 90 minutes of closing arguments on Jan. 26, returned a 10-2 manslaughter verdict nearly seven and a half hours later.

The jury — which was comprised of six white females, four white men, one Hispanic female and one Black female – had the option of convicting Gasser of second-degree murder or acquit him of the charge.

Jurors also were allowed to consider lesser charges, including manslaughter or negligent homicide.

The jury was instructed on the legal bar, or what prosecutors needed to prove for each charge.

Second-degree murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence, is the killing of a human being when the offender has a specific intent to kill or inflict great bodily harm.

Manslaughter is a homicide which would ordinarily be second-degree murder, except it was committed in sudden passion or heat of blood, immediately caused by provocation sufficient to deprive an average person of his self-control or cool reflection.

Negligent homicide is the killing of a human without any intent to kill but occurs when a person acts in a negligent manner.

Louisiana requires only 10 of 12 jurors to come to the same conclusion about a defendant’s guilt, unless the case involves the death penalty.

Some legal experts have said that the defense has a good shot at being granted an appeal, given the fact that Gasser did not take the stand during the trial and the judge allowed the prosecution to introduce evidence of the earlier road-rage incident to the jury.

“I thought this was a very close case,” Dane Ciolino, a Loyola University law professor, told WWL News.

He added that there were a couple of keys in the case. The first was that the defense did not call a single witness.

“I was very surprised that Mr. Gasser didn’t take the stand. It’s very, very difficult for a defendant to win a self-defense case without taking the stand, looking them in the eye, subjecting to cross examination,” Ciolino said.

He said it was a long trial and the jury did see more than seven hours of police questioning Gasser.

However, he said the whole process is not over yet as the defense said it will appeal.

“I think that Mr. Gasser’s case presents substantial issues on appeal, which is usual in criminal cases. This one has meat to it, and will be another difficult decision,” he said.

Jefferson Parish Judge Ellen Kovach decided to allow the jury to hear about Ronald Gasser’s road-rage incident at the very same intersection 10 years ago.

“When jurors hear about misconduct in the past, they do tend to give it a lot of weight,” Ciolino told WWL News.

He said that most judges keep that “character evidence” out of the courtroom, however this time it was admitted.

“That evidence really did taint this trial from start to finish,” he said.

As a result, Ciolino said he believes that Gasser’s team has a real shot at an appeal.

This article originally published in the February 5, 2018 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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