Ronald Gasser was awaiting trial in the death of Joe McKnight when the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to take up the case of Dale Lambert.
That was only in October, so, had the Supreme Court agreed to consider Lambert's petition, it would not have reached a decision in time to save Gasser's bacon. But he wouldn't have needed the court's help regardless if he had been charged in any other state, save Oregon. Louisiana and Oregon accept conviction by a vote of 10-2 votes, whereas juries elsewhere must be unanimous.
Gasser was charged with second-degree murder after he and McKnight got vexed over some minor discourtesy when driving over the Mississippi River Bridge. Following a furious 5-mile chase, they hauled up on at a West Jefferson intersection where McKnight exited his car, approached Gasser's and was shot to death. Just another day on the roads of America.
Gasser was charged with second-degree murder, which carries mandatory life. He claimed that he was exercising the right to defend himself and that he had been terrified when McKnight, a former NFL running back, loomed on the passenger side of his car.
When jurors retired to consider those claims after six days of testimony, their first vote showed five for acquittal, and three for guilty as charged. The others were weighing the possibility of a compromise whereby Gasser would be found guilty of manslaughter. That would certainly represent a break for a defendant accused of murder, but manslaughter is punishable by up to 40 years.
That is indeed the prospect he will face when he comes up for sentencing, for guilty of manslaughter was the eventual verdict. After more than seven hours of debate and head-scratching, nobody wanted Gasser sent up the river for murder, but 10 concluded he was guilty of the lesser offense. Only two jurors still believed that Gasser has been provoked and was thus entitled to fire in self-defense.
And that wrapped it up. Those 10 votes were enough to seal Gasser's fate, whereas anywhere else jurors would have been required to stick to the task. Only if they remained hopelessly hung, would the judge have sent them home, giving prosecutors the option of trying him again.
Regardless of whether Gasser got his just deserts, this is a system that invites injustice by encouraging haste in the jury room. Justice is hardly guaranteed when defendants, viewed as innocent by two citizens out of 12, can be sent to prison, maybe for the rest of their lives. This is hard to square with the concept of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Lambert is doing life after 10 Orleans Parish jurors found him guilty of murder in 2015. He became the latest in a long line to ask that the U.S. Supreme Court reverse a 1972 ruling that, although unanimous verdicts were a constitutional requirement in federal courts, Louisiana and Oregon were entitled to operate by a laxer standard.
The Supreme Court, however, decided that the Louisiana issue that really warranted its attention was the fate of the dusky gopher frog.
Non-unanimous verdicts can be a great help for prosecutors, because they mean defendants can be processed more speedily. They also undermine the protections afforded black defendants at jury selection. Prosecutors cannot exclude jurors on purely racial grounds, but they may not need to when two votes won't even count.
If the effect of non-unanimous juries is racially unfair, there is no need to be surprised, since that was the idea from the beginning. Majority verdicts were introduced at Louisiana's constitutional convention of 1898 when the express purpose was “to perpetuate the supremacy of the Anglo Saxon race.” Back then only nine votes were required of a criminal conviction. The idea was to keep up a steady supply of convicts the state could then lease out to work the fields. If this wasn't slavery, it was the next best thing.
That's why Gasser is looking at a long stretch at Angola, aka The Farm.
Correction: Thursday's column was almost correct to suggest that Winston Churchill died in 1964, but he lingered until January 24, 1965.
Email James Gill at Gill1407@bellsouth.net.