Personally, I’ve never been one to armchair quarterback murder investigations or second-guess police when their actions could be described as “restrained.” I’m not a cop and I have no law enforcement training. My relevant expertise as an attorney is limited to simply whether police are operating within the law, and that’s a limited scope.
However, it is difficult not to look a little cock-eyed at the investigation into the killing of Joe McKnight down in Terrytown. Publicly-released information makes one wonder: Why hasn’t the perp been charged yet?
To recap what happened, this past Thursday afternoon, McKnight and the shooter, Ronald Gasser, were apparently involved in a road rage incident. Both men stopped near the intersection of Behrman Highway and Holmes Boulevard in Terrytown. McKnight, who was unarmed, apparently exited his vehicle and was shot three times by Gasser, who was still sitting in his driver’s seat. McKnight was later pronounced dead.
An alleged eyewitness originally claimed that both men had exited their vehicles and that Gasser had “stood over” McKnight and killed him in cold blood. This claim was belied by the presence of shells inside Gasser’s vehicle and McKnight’s autopsy report.
Gasser stayed at the scene and cooperated with police. He was detained overnight, but was released without charges being filed. On Friday, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand justified his department’s actions, announcing that he wished to avoid a “rush to judgment” in favor of a “very deliberate and appropriate” approach.
In the aftermath of the shooting, it also came to light that Gasser had been charged with simple battery in 2006 in connection with a separate road rage incident at the same intersection. The charging document from that incident indicated that Gasser had a “How’s my Driving” bumper sticker on his work truck with a phone number routed to his private cell phone (which is frankly bizarre). The alleged victim called the number to complain that Gasser was driving recklessly, after which Gasser allegedly tracked him down as a gas station and slugged him.
That charge, it should be noted, was later dismissed. Still, it indicated a possible background of poor driving leading to violent confrontation.
Moreover, regardless of other factors, it’s clear that Gasser shot an unarmed man from within his own vehicle. Now, there are possible scenarios under which it would be appropriate to use deadly force against an unarmed assailant, even while secure in one’s own vehicle, but proving justification in those cases is an uphill battle. Even the most persnickety judge would likely approve an arrest warrant under those circumstances.
Again, the question is begged: Why weren’t charges brought against Gasser?
I haven’t seen Gasser’s side of the story reported yet, but speaking purely hypothetically, he may claim that McKnight approached aggressively and appeared to reach for a firearm, or that McKnight was attempting to enter his vehicle violently and was undeterred when Gasser drew his gun. Those scenarios would be arguably exculpating for Gasser.
The fact remains, however, that Gasser shot an unarmed man three times over a petty dispute without even exiting his vehicle. He also had previously faced a criminal charge over road rage, suggesting a pattern of behavior. As a former professional athlete, McKnight was no doubt physically intimidating to encounter, but presumably that’s not a valid issue when you can simply lock your doors. The bare facts known to police would seem to have militated in favor of arrest.
The elephant in the room, of course, is race. McKnight is black and Gasser is white, so inevitably the failure to arrest Gasser under these circumstances raises the specter of favoritism towards a white suspect. He does appear to be receiving kid gloves treatment.
On the other hand, it is also true that Gasser was cooperative and there are no serious indications that he is a flight risk. He also has no convictions for any violent offenses.
All that said, Gasser is not suspected of a purse snatching – it is undisputed that he gunned a man down in the street. Failing to charge him and lock him up as soon as possible sends a message, and I don’t think it’s a message Normand and other Jefferson Parish officials want to be sending. Rumors fly and assumptions are made under these circumstances.
I’m not a cop, but I have common sense. If there are other compelling reasons why Gasser hasn’t been arrested yet, I trust we will hear them soon. Otherwise, our Parish neighbor will have a great deal to explain.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.