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Sheriff goes on tirade as man is charged in fatal shooting of former USC star Joe McKnight

A man who was released from jail last week after he admitted to killing former USC football star Joe McKnight has been rearrested and charged with manslaughter, Louisiana officials announced Tuesday.

Police arrested Ronald Gasser, 54, late Monday for the Thursday afternoon shooting death of McKnight outside New Orleans.

Gasser, who told police last week that he fired his gun at McKnight, had initially been released with no charges just hours after his arrest as officers sought more details on the case. Police faced heavy criticism for the release, with news reports and activists saying the shooting was racially motivated. Gasser is white and McKnight, 28, was black.

Social media swarmed with comparisons to police shootings of black Americans that have ignited protests across American cities.

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The men had reportedly clashed during a road rage incident that led to the shooting. The incident had been described by the president of the local National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People branch as a “black man [who] was lynched” because of its public nature on a road in Terrytown, La., just southeast of New Orleans. 

But in a remarkable, wide-ranging and expletive-laden news conference Tuesday in which he chastised community members for demanding swift justice, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand defended his department’s handling of the case and said that activists had gotten it wrong.

No single witness has said until this day that there was one racial slur uttered.
Newell Normand, Jefferson Parish sheriff

“No single witness has said until this day that there was one racial slur uttered,” the sheriff said as he described the incident as “two people engaged in bad behavior.”

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An angry Normand pounded his fists on the lectern, saying the public is too quick to jump to conclusions about race in connection with shootings. He read messages, laden with expletives and racist and homophobic slurs, that he said were received by local officials who had defended the police investigation.

The language prompted MSNBC, which was broadcasting the news conference live, to cut away and apologize to viewers.

The sheriff, who is white, said some of the strongest words were directed at the only black member of the Jefferson Parish Council, Mark Spears, who was called a “punk” and an “Uncle Tom.” Spears had defended police last week and pleaded with the community to not rush to judgment on the shooting.

“We collectively should be ashamed of ourselves,” said Normand. “We began to criticize people for just asking for pause, let the process take its course. But no, that wasn’t enough. We had to make demands. ‘We want justice now. If we don’t get it now, if we don’t get it our way….’ It’s not about the right thing. It’s not about justice. It’s not about the process. It’s about what we want and what we want now. And we don’t care who we disparage in the process.

Ronald Gasser, 54
Ronald Gasser, 54
(Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office via AP )

“We better reflect and look at ourselves in the mirror. Are we going to continue to tear ourselves apart? We don’t even give people the opportunity to do what they are supposed to do,” he said.

Later, when a reporter asked if he understood why community members would be sensitive to a white man shooting a black man, the sheriff said that people should be more concerned about “black on black murders” and that the “fear is misdirected.”

Normand, who said the department interviewed Gasser for more than 12 hours and conducted more than 160 other interviews since Thursday, argued that even though Gasser had admitted to the shooting last week, police needed more witnesses and details.

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“Our arrest is only as good as a prosecution,” Norman said, suggesting that Gasser was released “for strategic reasons” in order to entice more witnesses to come forward. The sheriff also said the state’s “stand your ground” self-defense law complicated the investigation.

“If people don’t think we know what we are doing strategically… tough. I don’t care,” the sheriff said.

Normand said a “key witness” came forward Saturday after Gasser’s release and that police got Gasser’s permission to search his home. It’s unclear what the witness said or what was found in Gasser’s home.

Tuesday’s announcement’s came after days of protests in front of the Sheriff’s Department, where NAACP members and clergy held signs saying “a man was lynched” and “justice” as they demanded answers about the shooting. On Tuesday, NAACP representatives joined ministers in a news conference to say they were cautiously optimistic about the new arrest and charge.

”There’s partial satisfaction, but obviously Gasser should have been charged earlier. In similar cases in the past, a person in his situation would not have been charged with manslaughter but second-degree murder,” said Morris Reed, president of the New Orleans NAACP chapter, in an interview. “There is a chorus of individuals who want more serious charges. A man was summarily executed on one of the busiest intersections of Jefferson Parish County in the daylight and witnesses abound, and that is all the charge is?”

Reed said the sheriff was wrong to admonish activists who had questioned the role of race in the death. “We have to focus on all homicides that occur in the black community,” he said. “Preachers preach every Sunday from the pulpit on black-on-black homicides. Does that mean it gives others the license to kill us as well?”

Normand said on Tuesday that McKnight’s death came after he and Gasser were both driving “erratically” and cutting each other off on Thursday just southeast of the city. The sheriff said Gasser started a “verbal altercation” with McKnight and, when they were stopped at a red light next to each other, McKnight exited his car and went toward Gasser’s window. 

“Gasser pulls his weapon ... and fires three shots at Joe McKnight, killing him,” the sheriff said.

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Gasser got out of his car after the shooting “to see what actually happened to him,” Normand said. The sheriff said Gasser told police he was scared of McKnight but that witness interviews did not match up with parts of his account. 

McKnight also had a gun in the car, police said, but the gun and car belonged to his stepfather. The sheriff said there was no evidence McKnight suggested to Gasser that he had a weapon.

McKnight, who had played at USC for three seasons from 2007 to 2009, turned pro in 2010, when he was drafted by the New York Jets. He spent three seasons in New York before joining the Kansas City Chiefs. His NFL career ended in 2014 after he tore his Achilles’ tendon.

He joined the Canadian Football League, playing briefly for the Edmonton Eskimos before joining the Saskatchewan Roughriders in late 2016. McKnight had been in talks with the Minnesota Vikings about a return to the NFL and in the meantime was working at a mental health organization, according to an interview that his brother, Jonathan McKnight, gave to TV station WGNO.

Gasser owns a telecommunications firm as well as a real estate business, according to the New Orleans Advocate. He was previously arrested in 2006 and charged with simple battery for a road rage incident in the same intersection where McKnight was killed.

The charge was dismissed, but the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office said last week that the case would be reviewed again.

jaweed.kaleem@latimes.com

Jaweed Kaleem is The Times’ national race and justice correspondent. Follow him on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.

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UPDATES:

5:15 p.m.: This article has been updated with reaction from the NAACP and more details about the sheriff’s news conference.

10:35 a.m.: This article has been updated throughout with staff reporting, details from sheriff’s news conference.

This article was originally posted at 6:55 a.m.


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