Points to consider as the investigation of Joe McKnight's death progresses

There are conflicting accounts surrounding the shooting death of former NFL player Joe McKnight, raising serious questions about the investigation.
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The shooting death of former New York Jets running back Joe McKnight in a New Orleans suburb on Thursday is raising serious questions as to why McKnight was killed and why police would release McKnight’s shooter only hours after killing another person.

There is incomplete and conflicted information about the facts and circumstances that led to McKnight’s death. Among the more certain information is that 54-year-old Ronald Gasser repeatedly shot McKnight, 28, at the intersection of two roads in Terrytown, Louisiana. This shooting occurred at approximately 2:43 p.m., on a day with mostly sunny weather. The time of day and weather are important because they suggest that Gasser had, or should have had, a good view of McKnight and whether he posed a threat. By all available accounts, McKnight, who last played in the NFL in 2014 and mostly recently played for the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders, was not carrying a firearm. Also, a search of McKnight’s car apparently did not uncover any kind of weapon. Gasser, for his part, remained at the scene and turned in his gun to officers from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office. Gasser was then detained by those officers, questioned and released on Friday.

Other alleged details about the incident are in sharp dispute. According to The Times-Picayune, an unnamed female witness—whose possible ties to McKnight and Gasser have not been made public—observed McKnight and Gasser exiting their cars and then engaging in a heated argument while standing on the road. The argument may have been connected to an incident between the two men while they were driving their cars minutes earlier. The witness claims that McKnight was attempting to apologize to Gasser when Gasser escalated their debate and shot McKnight multiple times. Further, the witness recalls that after initially shooting McKnight, Gasser walked over to McKnight’s body and declared, “I told you don’t f--- with me,” and then shot McKnight again. Taken together, the unnamed witness portrays Gasser as a murderer who acted with the intent to kill McKnight in broad daylight. The witness recalling what Gasser vocalized suggests that she was standing reasonably close to the shooting.

Suspect in shooting death of ex-NFL player Joe McKnight released without charges

However, in a press conference on Friday, Sheriff Newell Normand relayed a completely different account of the incident. Sheriff Normand says that Gasser did not walk over to stand above a wounded McKnight. In fact, Sheriff Normand asserts, Gasser was in his car, rather than outside of it, when he fired three shots at McKnight. To support that view, the sheriff revealed that three bullet casings from the bullets used to kill McKnight were found in Gasser’s car. Sheriff Normand’s account thus differs substantially from that of the unnamed witness and offers a less damning portrayal of Gasser and a more ambiguous one of McKnight.

Trying to making sense of the conflicting accounts and available evidence

It is not certain why Sheriff Normand would reach tentative conclusions that contradict those of the unnamed witness, but, as mentioned above, police located the bullet casings within Gasser’s car. Police also questioned multiple witnesses including, of course, Gasser himself. Sheriff Normand also revealed that no incident video, surveillance or otherwise, has surfaced. That dynamic could change, as videos taken on bystanders’ smartphones are occasionally shared with law enforcement days or even weeks after an incident. At least for the time being, however, the absence of video means that the testimony of witnesses—and the honesty and accuracy of their recollections—are crucial to understanding what took place.

The results of McKnight’s autopsy, which reportedly has been completed, are also critical in the investigation. They shed light on Gasser’s location or locations when shooting McKnight. Those locations, in turn, are indicators as to why Gasser would shoot an apparently unarmed McKnight and whether Gasser thought he was acting in self-defense or revenge. McKnight’s clothing might also provide important clues, specifically if there is a discernable gunpowder pattern on the clothing. Such a pattern would suggest McKnight’s proximity to Gasser at the time of the shooting and possibly clarify whether McKnight could have posed an imminent threat to Gasser at the time Gasser shot him. Police reconstruction of the shooting will also provide insight as to what took place and why. The reconstruction will also shed light on why the casings were found in Gasser’s car. Police will also review any calls or texts made by McKnight, Gasser or witnesses. Such electronic evidence would help to contextualize the eyewitness accounts and other evidence.

Where the investigation goes from here

Gasser’s release from custody has understandably sparked controversy. By all accounts, he is clearly responsible for shooting and killing McKnight. So why would he be released? Even if Gasser did not intend to kill McKnight, he could be charged with manslaughter if the killing occurred due to sudden passion. Is race—Gasser is white and McKnight was African American—in any way explanatory? Would the police’s reaction be the same if the roles of the two men were reversed?

These are difficult and perhaps unanswerable questions. That said, there are several key points to consider:

1. Gasser could still be charged

The release of Gasser was not accompanied by public assurance from law enforcement that Gasser would not be charged. Instead, law enforcement, through Sheriff Normand, more cautiously expressed that Gasser has not been charged at this time.

Along those lines, Sheriff Normand told media on Friday that his office won’t “rush to judgment” and will instead adopt a “very deliberate and appropriate” approach to the fact-finding. Keep in mind, police cannot indefinitely detain a person who may be the subject of an investigation but who has not (yet) been charged with a crime. In most instances, police can only detain a person without charges for as long as it takes to conduct key elements of an investigation. A typical investigation involves securing relevant physical evidence and obtaining witness testimony. Investigations also explore whether persons involved in an incident have past ties to one another or to the location of the incident. The Times-Picayune reports that Gasser was charged with battery in 2006 following an altercation at the very same intersection where Gasser shot McKnight. At that time, Gasser allegedly hit a 51-year-old man, though the charge was later dropped.​ Also, if police believe that a person of interest is not a flight risk, he or she is less likely to be detained indefinitely. Gasser’s apparent cooperation with police likely helped to secure his release.

Depending on the results of the investigation, Gasser could be charged at some point in the days, weeks or months ahead. It is also possible that Gasser could be charged at a later date through a grand jury indictment or a bill of information. Or, he might never be charged with a crime.

NFL players, coaches react to Joe McKnight shooting

Whether or not Gasser is charged with a crime, McKnight’s family could sue him for wrongful death. Any such lawsuit is unlikely to occur until there is much more clarity as to what took place.

2. If charged, Gasser might try to use Louisiana’s “stand your ground” law

If eventually charged, Gasser may be able to take advantage of Louisiana’s  “stand your ground” law. Approximately 33 states have adopted stand your ground laws, which, as a general matter, make it lawful for a person to use what would otherwise be considered unlawful force in order to protect himself or herself against a threat or perceived threat that risks death or great bodily harm. In a stand your ground state, a person while at home or in certain other locations is not required to retreat, even when it would be safe and reasonable to do so. Instead, he or she can stand their ground and use deadly force to defend themselves and their property.

Stand your ground laws vary considerably as to when, and on behalf of whom, they can be used. In Louisiana, the stand your ground law can be invoked by a person when he or she is in their car and someone is trying to break in. Indeed, a homicide in Louisiana is justifiable when committed by a person “lawfully inside a dwelling, a place of business, or a motor vehicle. . . . against a person who is attempting to make an unlawful entry into the dwelling, place of business, or motor vehicle, or who has made an unlawful entry into the dwelling, place of business, or motor vehicle, and the person committing the homicide reasonably believes that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent the entry or to compel the intruder to leave the premises or motor vehicle.” If, as Sheriff Normand says, Gasser was inside his car at the time of the shooting and if McKnight was attempting to enter Gasser’s car—to be clear, that has not been alleged publicly at this time—Gasser could attempt to use Louisiana’s stand your ground law.

3. The role of race

As noted above, the races of McKnight and Gasser are receiving significant media attention. For his part, Sheriff Normand insists that race is not relevant. “Everybody wants to make this about race,” Normand observed during Friday’s press conference. But then he declared, “This isn’t about race.” Ostensibly to support this conclusion, Sheriff Normand claimed that a former Jefferson Parish deputy sheriff raised McKnight. It’s not entirely clear why the occupation of an adult who raised McKnight would insulate race from playing a role in McKnight’s death or in the investigation of it. If anything, that connection raises questions as to whether the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office can fairly investigate the death of a former employee’s dependent.

While Sheriff Normand contends race is not relevant to McKnight’s death, expect race to continue to play a role in the public’s assessment of this death. Race could take on more significance depending on evidence and witness testimony. For instance, if evidence surfaces that Gasser may have shot McKnight at least partly due to McKnight’s race, the possibility of a hate crime would enter the discussion. Further, Office of Civil Rights officials at the U.S. Department of Justice may monitor the matter to see if Gasser was in any way treated favorably because he is white.

4. McKnight killing could delay start of trial of Cardell Hayes for murder of Will Smith

On Monday, Cardell Hayes stands trial in the New Orleans courtroom of Judge Camille Buras for the murder of former New Orleans Saints defensive end Will Smith. Like McKnight, Smith was killed in connection to an argument between two men on a road.

Given the high profile, NFL ties to both shooting deaths and given the passions that their deaths have stirred in New Orleans, it’s within the realm of possibility that attorneys for Hayes could petition Judge Buras to postpone the trial. Such a petition would be on grounds that jurors could be adversely influenced by McKnight’s death. Such a petition would probably fail, however, since jurors should be able to separate the incidents. After all, while the two incidents are similar in certain respects, they have absolutely nothing to do with one another. Still, if Judge Buras denies a petition and Hayes is later convicted, his attorneys could raise the denial as grounds for an appeal. Odds are such an argument would not prevail.

Richard O’Brien contributed to this story.

Michael McCann is SI's legal analyst. He is also a Massachusetts attorney and a tenured law professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.