The man behind the controversial road-rage shooting that claimed the life of former NFL player Joe McKnight and sparked protests over the handling of the investigation was indicted Thursday on a charge of second-degree murder.

Ronald Gasser, 55, has been in jail in protective custody since his arrest four days after the Dec. 1 shooting of McKnight on a Terrytown highway. He now faces the possibility of life behind bars if convicted.

Although the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office initially booked Gasser on a manslaughter count on Dec. 5, prosecutors said their investigators worked with detectives to continue building the case to present to the grand jury.

"Today's indictment is a result of that joint effort," Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick Jr. said in a news release.

Bail for Gasser was increased from $500,000 to $750,000 after the indictment.

One of his defense attorneys immediately said that Gasser, a former Marine who owned a telecommunications installation company, will claim he acted in self-defense.

 

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The indictment sets up what is likely to be a lengthy legal dispute over the most minute details of what Gasser did, as both sides attempt to prove whether or not he reasonably feared for his life when he shot and killed McKnight.

Sheriff Newell Normand has said that Gasser, 55, told detectives in interviews that he was acting in self-defense when he shot McKnight at Behrman Highway and Holmes Boulevard. The two had been involved in a miles-long, tit-for-tat confrontation that started on the Crescent City Connection, according to the sheriff.

One of Gasser’s defense attorneys said his client will make the case that he shot only after McKnight boxed him in on the street and threatened him through his car’s window.

“We’re very disappointed with the district attorney’s decision to bring this as a second-degree murder when it’s clearly a case of self-defense,” attorney Matt Goetz said. “He was clearly within his rights to defend himself against someone who was actively attempting to enter his vehicle.”

Goetz said he believes the national debate over other racially charged shootings may have influenced the indictment. Gasser is white, and McKnight was black. 

“I think there’s a perception that something had to be done. I respect Sheriff Normand and the District Attorney’s Office. However, I think once the full facts of this are known, it’s going to be clear that my client is innocent,” Goetz said. “There was absolutely no racial motivation on Mr. Gasser’s part in defending himself. He legitimately thought he was in fear for his life.”

Goetz said Gasser had bought a gun for protection as he drove through New Orleans to jobs installing telecommunications equipment. Since his arrest, he has been held in protective custody at the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center in Gretna for 23 hours a day, Goetz said.

“It’s been really rough on him and his family,” Goetz said.

Gasser’s defense team will be making formal requests for the autopsy report on McKnight and other forensic reports, according to Goetz. The attorney said he believes those reports will prove that McKnight was reaching into Gasser’s car when he was shot.

Normand, speaking at a news conference Thursday afternoon, declined to say whether that claim is supported by his detectives’ investigation.

"It's in the hands of the district attorney," Normand said. "He alone will decide when he wants to reveal certain aspects of this case."

But Normand said he was "pleased" with the murder charge.

The attorney for McKnight’s family, meanwhile, said they saw the indictment as vindication for the former running back for the New York Jets and prep star at John Curtis Christian High School.

“They’re greatly relieved and the mom can exhale now, because it’s a big burden off her,” George Tucker said. “She can finally breathe. She just didn’t want to believe that her son’s death would have been in vain.”

Tucker agreed with Gasser’s attorney that the killing was not racially motivated. But he also cited a 2006 incident in which Gasser was accused of beating another man, who was white, at the same intersection as the shooting.

“He doesn’t have a race issue; he has a hate issue,” Tucker said. “In his mind, he’s just going to beat people up. This time, I guess, he wasn’t willing to take a chance on a fight, so he shot and killed him.”

The passage of a few days between the killing and Gasser’s arrest raised hackles among local civil rights advocates, who argued that a black suspect never would have remained at large for that long. They blamed Normand for letting Gasser go free after he submitted to hours of questioning on the day of the shooting.

But Normand suggested that the investigation after Gasser’s initial booking had revealed new evidence, which he declined to describe.

“When we ultimately charged him at that point in time with manslaughter, we had access to certain things, and then after that point in time we gained access to other things,” Normand said. 

Tucker said he was happy to hear that Normand supported the murder charge.

“He is an attorney, so he’s more than able to look at the facts and be able to change his position. Sounds like that’s what he’s done, so I commend him for that, and the family’s appreciative,” Tucker said.

One of the activists who had picketed the Sheriff’s Office after the shooting expressed thanks for the murder charge.

“Hallelujah!” said Gaylor Spiller, president of the West Bank Jefferson Parish branch of the NAACP. “I’m very glad that the grand jury reached a decision that fits the crime.”

Gasser’s case has been assigned to 24th Judicial District Court Judge Ellen Shirer Kovach.


Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.