McKnight shooting raises questions on 'stand your ground' law

Ronald Gasser, who is white, shot the black football star in a deadly act of road rage. While the sheriff's office has dismissed race is a factor in the case, others have said not so fast. 

Then-New York Jets running back Joe McKnight, seen here in 2013, was shot to death following an argument at an intersection with Ronald Gasser, a white man.

Joe McKnight was a 28-year-old black man and a 205-pound former NFL running back and kick returner. Ronald Gasser is a 54-year-old white man.

When Mr. McKnight walked up to Mr. Gasser’s sedan midday Thursday, uttering obscenities at Gasser in what authorities would later describe as a road rage incident turned tragic, Gasser fired three shots from his driver’s seat, killing the football star.

The confrontation at an intersection in the New Orleans suburb of Terrytown first drew outrage from the black community and social media because the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office released Gasser without charging him. But ever since Gasser was arrested for manslaughter on Monday, attention has shifted to Louisiana’s stand-your-ground law and whether it and other laws like it enable racial biases in the name of self-defense.

If Gasser is formally charged and the case reaches trial, it’s unclear if he will claim self-defense through the law, which removes a person’s obligation “to retreat” if faced with a real or perceived threat. But Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand said in a news conference that the stand-your-grand law “looms on the horizon,” although he declined to elaborate further.  

Louisiana is one of more than 30 states to adopt a stand-your-ground law, which traces its origin to the Castle Doctrine that allowed men in 17th-century England to defend their castles if they were broken into. Proponents of the modern-day law – that considers a castle to be a person’s home, car, and other public spaces – have said it allows a person to defend themselves when help can't come fast enough. But critics say it is enmeshed in white fears of black men. They argue these laws attempt through their language to be race and gender blind, but in practicality aren’t. 

“The most pernicious thing is the widespread denial that race has anything to do with these cases,” says Caroline Light, the director of Harvard University’s Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, and whose research includes the genealogy of stand-your-ground laws. “It doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with race and gender. But our nation has a long history of perceiving black masculinity as a threat. A large-sized man, a man who is angry and yelling, even if he’s not armed, is perceived as a threat.”

Sheriff Normand said in a news conference Monday that the confrontation between Gasser and McKnight started when both drove erratically on a highway near New Orleans. At some point, said Mr. Normand, McKnight cut off Gasser’s vehicle, which Gasser later told authorities irritated him, and he set out after McKnight. The men shouted obscenities at each other until they stopped at an intersection. It was then McKnight, shouting at Gasser, exited his vehicle and walked up to the passenger side of Gasser’s car. Gasser, he admitted later, fired the three shots that killed McKnight.

There was a gun in McKnight’s car that belonged to his stepfather, said the sheriff. But there’s no evidence McKnight ever referred to the gun or threatened to use it.

Gasser remained at the scene, where he was detained. But he was released later Thursday without being charged.  

Normand said authorities first released Gasser because they wanted to work through the details. But in a news conference shortly after the shooting on Thursday, he indicated the stand-your-ground law would likely be a part of the case.  

"In this state, there are relative statutes that provide defenses to certain crimes," Normand said, reported The Times-Picayune. "For example, officers have those same defenses. So when we shoot and kill somebody ... it's a homicide. The question is, 'Is it justified or not?'"

Normand refused to elaborate further.

Some immediately contrasted the sheriff’s release of Gasser with its arrest of Cardell Hayes, a black man who admitted to shooting former New Orleans Saint Will Smith in another deadly act of road-rage in New Orleans in April. While Gasser has since been arrested, the comparison has continued to rub sore wounds in the black community. The NAACP has called for justice and transparency throughout the investigation, according to The Times-Picayune.

Normand has denied race is part of the case, dismissing in Monday’s news conference a question from a reporter about the “fear and angst” among blacks about a white shooter being sent home.

“What we had were two adult males engaged in unacceptable behavior that did not understand how to deal with conflict resolution, and this thing went to a point that unfortunately led to incredibly tragic consequences over bad driving behavior and bad spoken words,” said Normand.

He said that while black men make up 12 percent of the population of Jefferson Parish, they represent about 80 percent of shooters and victims.  

The numbers Normand cited mirror national statistics. In 2010, blacks were 13 percent of the US population, but were 55 percent of its homicide victims, the vast majority at the hands of other African-Americans, according to the Pew Research Center. But ever since Florida passed the first stand-your-grand law in 2005, critics have warned it and other state laws like it have allowed perceptions of violence within the black community – sometimes accurate, sometimes not – to become a legal justification for deadly force.

In Louisiana, the predecessor to the stand-your-ground law was one that allowed any person to use force, deadly or otherwise, to protect themselves on their property (defined as their home or car), according to the Times-Picayune. In 2006, the state legislature expanded this provision to any public space. In particular, the law specifies that a person does not have an obligation “to retreat” if faced with a real or perceived threat and “may stand his or her ground and meet force with force.”

In court, a judge or jury cannot consider “the possibility of retreat” in determining whether someone lawfully used force in self-defense, although an aggressor cannot retroactively claim self-defense.

Multiple studies have found that states’ many renditions of the law have led to a disproportionate number of juries finding shootings of black men justifiable.

An investigative report by the Tampa Bay Times, for instance, found that defendants who killed a black person were found not guilty 73 percent of the time, while those who killed a white person were found not guilty 59 percent of the time. The newspaper analyzed 200 stand-your-ground cases in Florida.

But John Lott, president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, and an advocate for stand-your-ground laws, wrote in 2013 that often forgotten in the debate over the laws is why they exist in the first place. 

"Requiring people to retreat sometimes prevented people from defending themselves.... Overzealous prosecutors sometimes claimed that people who defended themselves could have retreated even farther," he wrote in an op-ed that appeared in The Chicago Tribune. "The laws make it easier for would-be victims to protect themselves when the police can't arrive fast enough," which he added could benefit people living in high-crime areas.  

Perhaps the most high profile stand-your-ground case was from the Sunshine State. George Zimmerman, a white and Hispanic man, did not request an immunity hearing under the law for shooting Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, in an act of vigilantism. But “he still has that option if there is a civil lawsuit,” wrote The Christian Science Monitor’s Patrik Jonsson at the time.

These and other high-profile cases prompted the American Bar Association to recommend a number of changes to stand-your-ground laws. In a 2015 report, the ABA’s National Task Force on Stand Your Ground Laws acknowledged that studies show racial bias are pervasive in these cases.

It cited one study by Jennifer Eberhardt, a social psychologist at Stanford University, that found “people were quicker to shoot black men with guns than white men with guns, and if there existed any doubt, would shoot a black person with no gun over a white man with no gun.”

The report also mentions Ed Shohat, a criminal defense attorney and member of the Miami-Dade County Community Relations Board, testifying that “minority communities are deathly afraid that stand-your-ground laws sits side-by-side with racial profiling; the ticket to vigilante justice.”

In Louisiana, Gasser has not been formally charged with manslaughter. The Jefferson Parish sheriff’s office so far has only found enough probable cause arrest him. It has no more than 60 days to formally charge him, explains Dane Ciolino, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans.

If the case does go to trial, Mr. Ciolino tells the Monitor, the defense might claim the homicide was justifiable because Gasser believed his life was in danger.

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