A Jefferson Parish judge on Thursday sentenced Ronald Gasser to 30 years in prison for gunning down Joe McKnight at a Terrytown intersection 15 months ago, handing him a term that fell 10 years short of the maximum sentence sought by the slain football star’s family.
Gasser sat expressionless in the Gretna courtroom as McKnight’s family and friends spoke about the devastation they have felt since Dec. 1, 2016, when Gasser shot McKnight three times through the open passenger-side window of Gasser’s car.
The two men began feuding while driving across the Crescent City Connection that afternoon. The encounter reached its fatal conclusion when an unarmed McKnight got out of his SUV at Behrman Highway and Holmes Boulevard and approached Gasser's vehicle.
“That day is the day I became numb, numb to everything,” Jennifer McKnight, the dead man’s mother, told Gasser, adding that she was even crying again at 4 a.m. Thursday. “You put a pain on me I’m not able to endure.”
Kalee Rongey, a longtime friend of McKnight’s, told Gasser that far from acting in self-defense, as he claimed, he made a conscious decision to kill.
Gasser told authorities he fired out of fear for his life, but Rongey said the trial showed he passed up many opportunities to defuse the situation by pulling off the road, calling 911 or even rolling up his car window.
“Numerous times you could have removed yourself from the situation, and you chose not to,” she said. “You had your gun ready long before you were fearful.”
Addressing the courtroom, she said, "A man who handles road rage like this does not deserve to be on the streets.”
Michelle Quick, the mother of McKnight’s 9-year-old son Jaden, said the boy called his father’s cellphone to hear his voice in the days after his murder, then asked her if McKnight would hear in heaven the message he left. She also spoke of the time he accidentally came across video on the internet of his father lying dead in the street.
A maximum sentence, Quick said, “will not bring Joe back, but it will help bring peace to (Jaden’s) life, knowing that the man who murdered his father will never be free.”
Judge Ellen Shirer Kovach, however, stopped short of imposing the full 40 years.
She said she hopes the incident will serve as a cautionary tale for drivers quick to anger on the road. Noting that either man could have stood down during the five-mile-long confrontation, she said Gasser made the fateful decision to use a firearm and now will spend most of the rest of his life in jail because of it.
“There are no winners here,” she said.
Kovach said she had received many letters from McKnight’s supporters, and that “a talented young athlete and father had his life taken from him.”
“This tragedy,” she said, “did not need to happen.”
Under Louisiana law, Gasser, 56, will be eligible for parole after serving 75 percent of his sentence. He would be about 77 years old then. He could be released for good behavior after serving 85 percent of the sentence, when he would be about 80.
Outside the courthouse, McKnight family members said they thought justice was served, even though Gasser didn't get the full 40 years.
“Am I satisfied? Yes,” Jennifer McKnight said. “To know he is going to serve time behind bars for what he did, because I feel it didn’t have to end that way.”
Quick said her main hope was that Gasser will never be free, recalling the fear Jaden felt when he found out his father’s killer was not in jail the first few days after the shooting. She said that even now he gets nervous when there is conflict between drivers on the road.
McKnight and Quick said they didn’t get the impression that Gasser was remorseful for what he did.
“Enough is enough,” Quick said with a note of exasperation in her voice. “They keep trying find a justification. There is no justification for taking somebody’s life.”
“Accept that you’re wrong,” she continued. “You are still not accepting you are wrong. You and your team still believe that what you did was justified."
Earlier, in the courtroom, Rongey had said she was grateful that the trial allowed what she considered to be key truths to come to light: that McKnight never entered Gasser’s car, that Gasser did not act in self-defense and that McKnight was not in a steroid-induced rage, a possibility alleged by the defense in pretrial motions.
“Those truths are what have allowed my heart to heal,” she said.
Quick told Gasser before the sentencing that she will make it her life's mission “to make sure that Jaden doesn’t grow up with hate in his heart for you.”
“Fostering hate towards you is not going to bring healing to his heart,” she said.
Just before the sentencing, Matthew Goetz, Gasser’s attorney, asked Kovach for leniency and to take into consideration that his client had no previous criminal convictions and had served his country in the military.
While Goetz said Gasser regretted what happened, Kovach noted that any remorse Gasser may have felt wasn’t evident during the trial in January.
Before the sentencing, Kovach turned down Gasser’s request for a new trial.
The jury rejected Gasser’s contention that he was forced to shoot out of fear for his life. Goetz had argued that he had every right to use lethal force to protect himself, but the jury found that the tit-for-tat exchange between the two men as they drove across the bridge and into the west bank did not present a clear-cut case of Gasser being the quarry.
But by deciding to convict him of manslaughter, the jury also rejected the second-degree murder charge sought by the prosecution, which would have sent him away for life with no chance for parole, probation or suspended sentence.
It was the second area high-profile case in recent years in which someone was found guilty of manslaughter for shooting and killing a prominent sports figure during a traffic argument.
Cardell Hayes, who was convicted in December 2016 of killing former New Orleans Saints star Will Smith during an altercation in the Lower Garden District, was sentenced to 25 years in prison.