In an extraordinary, expletive-laden news conference, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand said Tuesday that the confessed killer of former NFL player Joe McKnight had been booked on a count of manslaughter, then took to angrily denouncing those who questioned why the shooter had initially been released without charges.
Ronald Gasser, 54, was arrested late Monday, four days after shooting McKnight over what Normand described as a traffic dispute that began on the Crescent City Connection bridge and ended at an intersection in Terrytown.
Magistrate Commissioner Patricia Joyce set Gasser’s bail at $500,000.
The initial decision to release Gasser, who is white, a few hours after he shot McKnight, who was black, ignited local protests and drew fierce condemnation on social media, where critics questioned whether a black shooting suspect would have walked free under similar circumstances.
In a striking coincidence, the McKnight case played out just as a trial began in New Orleans over the death of former Saints lineman Will Smith — shot in April by a black suspect who was immediately arrested and now faces murder charges.
Normand said the decision to release Gasser last week had nothing to do with his race. In extended remarks to the media, he quoted from comments posted on social media — omitting none of the offensive epithets they contained — and suggested that both men involved in the altercation bore some of the blame.
"Let us not try to make this out to be something that it is not," Normand said. "What we had were two adult males engaged in unacceptable behavior."
The sheriff took particular offense at the online abuse directed at Mark Spears, the sole black member of the Jefferson Parish Council, who had stood next to the sheriff during a news conference on the case last week.
“It’s not fair,” Normand said. “It’s not fair for him to be called ‘You punk ass, Uncle Tom coon, we saw you sell out to him, you rat-ass, faggot punk.’ ”
Normand continued at length, citing other online comments containing racist and homophobic language, though without mentioning who wrote them. At one point, MSNBC, which had been carrying his comments live, cut away and apologized to viewers.
Asked by a reporter why he thought it was necessary to repeat racial epithets, Normand said, "I hope it gets everybody to realize how crazy we're getting.”
He thanked a group of local officials — including state Sens. J.P. Morrell and Troy Carter and state Rep. Rodney Lyons, as well as black clergy members — for urging calm last week. “You are true leaders, and you are credible leaders,” Normand said, seeming to verge on tears.
Reaction to news of Gasser’s arrest was mixed.
Carter, in an interview on WWL-TV, said he understood why protesters would view the Sheriff’s Office with skepticism. “It's not like government has always done the right thing," Carter said. "But I think we as leaders need to absorb some of that and move forward in the pursuit of justice."
The black pastors who called for calm last week thanked Normand for meeting with them and taking “swift action.”
“We continue in prayer for the McKnight family, Mr. Gasser and the community as we heal following this tragic occurrence,” said Bishop J.D. Wiley.
Gaylor Spiller, president of the Jefferson Parish West Bank branch of the NAACP, said she was “appreciative” of the arrest, but added, “We’re not satisfied with the charges, that’s the bottom line. The man should be charged at least with second-degree murder.”
Normand gave only a general explanation for his decision to have Gasser booked on manslaughter instead of a more serious charge. He said the facts fit the lesser count, which carries a potential sentence of zero to 40 years.
“It is odd,” said Dane Ciolino, a law professor at Loyola University. “The vast majority of manslaughter convictions in this state are the result of plea bargains.”
“The Sheriff’s Office must be convinced that the shooting was done in heat of blood, and that what McKnight did was adequate provocation, that is, what he was doing was somewhat out of line,” Ciolino said.
The sheriff went into greater detail on the question of why Gasser’s arrest was delayed. Normand said detectives had been able to interview only a handful of witnesses in the initial hours after the shooting, and none of them could contradict the self-defense claim Gasser made during a voluntary interview.
He said a database generated by license-plate readers allowed investigators to later identify scores of other potential witnesses, some of whom couldn’t be located until days after the fact.
“We thought it was best that the arrest not be made for strategic reasons, until we could get other witnesses,” Normand said. “We have reaped the benefits of this strategy. We’ve been able to talk to witnesses and we’ve been able to lock (Gasser) in on a story.”
To those who criticized him for moving too slowly to arrest Gasser, Normand said, “Tough. I don’t care.”
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Normand said the volatile incident may have begun when McKnight, who according to witnesses was driving “erratically,” cut Gasser off on the bridge.
“Mr. Gasser, in his statement, says he was irritated by that and set off after Mr. McKnight,” Normand said.
Gasser was in an Infiniti sedan and McKnight in an Audi SUV as they continued the tit-for-tat confrontation, arguing at each other for miles, all the way to the corner of Behrman Highway and Holmes Boulevard, where they both stopped about 2:45 p.m.
Gasser was blocked in by cars on all sides as McKnight pulled up to his right at a red light, the sheriff said. McKnight got out of his vehicle and leaned down to Gasser’s passenger-side window, the sheriff said. The two men continued to argue until Gasser pulled a handgun from between his seat and the center console.
Gasser fired three times and hit McKnight three times, according to the Jefferson Parish coroner. Despite the desperate attempts of a sheriff’s deputy and a naval officer who happened to be nearby to save him, the former New York Jet was pronounced dead at the scene.
Normand said he did not want to go further into the details about Gasser’s statement or what witnesses have told detectives. He said he anticipates that Gasser will mount a self-defense argument.
“I’m not going to go into what Mr. Gasser’s statement was, but suffice it to say it is replete with statements talking about his fear of McKnight making threatening statements and otherwise,” Normand said.
McKnight's SUV was owned by his stepfather, and a gun was found in it. But there was no indication that McKnight mentioned it or used it during the confrontation, Normand said.
The decision on whether to formally charge Gasser will be up to the office of District Attorney Paul Connick Jr., which declined to comment on the case.
Ciolino said he expects Connick to take the case to a grand jury.
Gasser was represented by a public defender during his first court appearance. That attorney did not return a request for comment.
Staff writer Ramon Antonio Vargas contributed to this report.