After seven tense hours of deliberations, a palpable sense of relief permeated the lobby of Jefferson Parish’s courthouse complex Friday night as family and friends of slain former NFL running back Joe McKnight processed the verdict delivered upstairs less than an hour before.

The family said they had no immediate comment following the jury’s 10-2 decision to convict Ronald Gasser of manslaughter, a lesser charge than the second-degree murder conviction prosecutors sought but one that could send him to prison for up to 40 years.

Minutes earlier, defense attorneys Matthew Goetz and Gerard Archer made their exit into the rain outside the Gretna courthouse, stopping briefly as Goetz expressed disappointment the jury didn’t accept Gasser’s self-defense argument.

Upstairs, Gasser, the Gretna man who became infamous overnight for gunning down McKnight, 28, at a Terrytown intersection almost 14 months ago, showed no emotion as he was led back into the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center.

District Attorney Paul Connick’s office, generally aloof with the media, sent prosecutors Shannon Swaim and Seth Shute out to field questions from the throng of reporters at the courthouse steps as family members slipped out behind them and into the night.

Asked if the prosecutors felt justice had been served despite the conviction on a lesser charge, Swaim said they did. "If you respect the law, you've got to respect the jury's verdict," she said.

She added that the family was pleased as well.

"They were very satisfied with it — just some closure," said Swaim, who exchanged hugs with a number of McKnight relatives and supporters, including the victim's sister, Johanna, who left the courtroom in tears. "I'm just very happy for them."

Connick also issued a statement: "We offer our most sincere condolences to the McKnight family and hope they can find peace in knowing that justice has been served in this case. We also want to thank the jurors for their service and incredible attentiveness they spent following the evidence."

The family's closure is not yet complete, however. They will not know the extent of Gasser's punishment until 24th Judicial District Court Judge Ellen Shirer Kovach sentences him on March 15.

Manslaughter does not have a mandatory minimum sentence. Prosecutors could have sought to ensure that Gasser faced a minimum of 20 years because he used a gun to kill McKnight, but Shute, without elaborating, said his office declined that option. 

The verdict also highlighted Louisiana’s unusual practice of allowing non-unanimous verdicts, with only 10 of 12 jurors needing to agree on a defendant's guilt in cases that don't involve the death penalty.

Authorities were eager after the verdict came in to defend the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office’s early handling of the case, which sparked protests and intense criticism because Gasser wasn't arrested immediately after the Dec. 1, 2016, shooting.

That didn't happen until four days later, after Gasser voluntarily spoke to investigators for more than a dozen hours during three separate, taped interviews.

Some critics accused then-Sheriff Newell Normand of giving Gasser preferential treatment by not arresting him at once, possibly because Gasser is white and McKnight was black. Then, some were outraged when deputies booked Gasser on the lesser count of manslaughter instead of second-degree murder, with which prosecutors later charged him.

Swaim and Shute said Friday night that the unhurried pace of the initial investigation was crucial because it allowed detectives to get Gasser's version of events in detail before collecting the evidence to disprove it with jurors.

"They did the right thing. They waited; they built a case," Shute said.

Normand retired as sheriff last summer to become a radio talk show host.

The office, now led by Sheriff Joe Lopinto, issued a statement late Friday saying, "Professional policing is deliberate and detailed work which does not always lend itself to making snap decisions. ... The sheriff is proud of the work that these men and women performed and thanks the citizens of Jefferson Parish for their patience with the criminal justice process."

Swaim said one of the key junctures of the trial pitted Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Tim Scanlan against Goetz on Thursday.

Despite facing an acid-tongued cross-examination from Goetz, Scanlan never wavered in his testimony: Testing done by his agency's crime lab failed to support Gasser's assertion that he shot McKnight only when the ex-John Curtis Christian School football standout lunged through the half-open passenger-side window of the defendant's car and nearly touched him while making death threats.

McKnight, in that case, would have had burns, gunpowder marks and other telltale signs of being shot from point-blank range, Scanlan maintained. None of that was found on him or his clothes, meaning he was at least 2½ feet from Gasser when he was shot, Scanlan said.

When Scanlan dismissed Goetz's assertion that a ladder in Gasser's car should also have had gunpowder marks on it by saying, "Ladders are different from people," Goetz insinuated that Scanlan's career could be in jeopardy if authorities failed to win a conviction in the death of a local football hero.

But Scanlan shot back that he'd be fine no matter what happened and reiterated that one would need to discount "every other piece of evidence" to believe Gasser's portrayal of the final moments of McKnight's life.

"He basically discredited what Mr. Gasser told the police with the physical evidence," Swaim said after the verdict was announced. "The Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office ... gave (Gasser) every benefit of the doubt and did work to see where it led them."

Goetz said he intends to appeal the conviction.

Asked what he thought contributed to the jury's decision, he said the testimony about how the two men jockeyed for position during their 5-mile back-and-forth confrontation on the Crescent City Connection may have muddied the waters in the jury's minds over who was the aggressor.

Goetz's defense strategy for Gasser rested squarely on the state's self-defense law, and he argued the shooting was justified because even investigators testifying for the state said McKnight's left hand was just inside Gasser's vehicle.

During closing arguments, Goetz sought to cut through the hours of testimony over the possible positioning of the two men's bodies with a simple fact. “You know what does match?” he asked. “He’s in my client’s car.”

John Shilling, who testified he was assaulted by Gasser at the same intersection 11 years ago after he complained about Gasser’s driving, said he hoped his testimony played a role in the jury’s decision to reject an argument of self-defense.

Shilling had called the number on the side of Gasser’s work truck on Behrman Highway on April 4, 2006, thinking he'd be connected to a supervisor, only to be answered and then cursed out and threatened by Gasser himself. He said he hung up and pulled into a gas station, followed by Gasser, who punched him in the head and upper body three times.

Gasser’s statement to police, recounted at the trial by the officer who took it, painted Shilling as the aggressor, saying he spat at Gasser's car and got out to challenge him, forcing Gasser to hit him three times.

“He followed me to the gas station,” Shilling said with a note of disbelief. “I didn’t follow him.”

He said he saw a parallel in the two incidents.

Outside, Shute and Swaim said accounts of the 2006 incident, which the judge allowed over the defense's objections, were relevant.

“It showed how he views other people on the street and (his) interactions with them,” Shute said. “It's always somebody else's fault … he was always looking for a confrontation.”

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.

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