On Thursday, former NFL player Joe McKnight was shot and killed in what appeared to be a road rage incident in Terrytown, Louisiana. Police initially released the shooter, Ronald Gasser, from custody, sparking a massive uproar on social media that this was yet another case of a white man getting away with killing a black man. But on Monday, Gasser was arrested for manslaughter.
Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand explained his handling of the case so far in a bizarre, rambling press conference — in which he spent much of his time complaining about insults from social media, including racial and homophobic slurs, hurled at him and other elected officials.
“We have sometimes unrealistic expectations about how these things work,” Normand said. “These aren’t easy things. You don’t just go out and slap some cuffs on people day in and day out.”
The shooting quickly drew national attention. Tensions surrounding the case have run high on social media in particular, drawing some comparisons to Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012 — in large part because a controversial “stand your ground” law may benefit Gasser’s defense, much as many still (incorrectly) believe it benefited Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman. But the actual details of what happened on Thursday and led to McKnight’s death are still coming in.
What we know about McKnight’s death
Based on what the sheriff’s office and media outlets have reported, McKnight’s death appears to be the result of a tragic road rage incident.
The sheriff said both men drove erratically on Thursday, December 1, weaving in and out of traffic and pursuing each other down at least two highways and other roads after something happened to get one or both angry.
At a red light, both men stopped and yelled at each other through their windows. Then McKnight got out of his truck and bent over — based on the forensics evidence — to look into Gasser’s car. After some arguing back and forth, Gasser pulled out a gun and shot and killed McKnight.
It’s not yet clear if McKnight ever reached into the car or physically threatened Gasser in any way. There was a gun in the car McKnight was driving, but McKnight didn’t own the gun or the car — both belonged to his stepfather. And the sheriff said there was no indication McKnight tried to use the firearm during his encounter with Gasser.
CBS News reported that this was not the first time Gasser got into a serious road rage incident: “A report issued by the sheriff’s office said he was involved in a previous incident at the same intersection in February 2006. Gasser got into a ‘verbal altercation’ with another driver, then followed the driver into a service station and ‘began to strike him with a closed fist,’ according to the sheriff’s office. A charge of simple battery was later dismissed.”
After letting Gasser free on Friday, December 2, the sheriff’s office arrested Gasser on Monday, December 5, charging him with manslaughter. Sheriff Normand clarified at a press conference on Tuesday, December 6, that the charge could still be scaled up or down, depending on how the investigation proceeds.
The shooting drew comparisons to Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012
When Gasser was released just a day after the shooting, there was a swift outcry on social media — with many people drawing comparisons to Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012.
The shootings share a few similarities: The victim was black, the death could have been avoided if cooler heads (particularly on the shooter’s side) prevailed, and both drew a lot of attention to “stand your ground” laws.
In 2012, Martin, a black 17-year-old, was walking back to a Sanford, Florida, house, where he and his dad were staying, after going to a convenience store. George Zimmerman, a volunteer with the neighborhood watch, spotted Martin while driving around for an errand, and he called the police. During the call, Zimmerman, a Hispanic mixed-race 28-year-old, followed Martin as he reported what Martin was doing — leading the dispatcher to tell Zimmerman that they didn’t want him to follow Martin. Zimmerman responded, “Okay.” But after the call, Zimmerman and Martin got into some sort of fight. Zimmerman, who legally owned a gun, shot and killed the boy.
Zimmerman, like Gasser, was also let go without a formal arrest at first, which is what drew national attention to the shooting in the first place. He was later charged and tried for Martin’s death, but he was acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges against him.
To critics, the Zimmerman verdict, the delay in charging Gasser, other similar killings of black men, and high-profile police shootings suggest that the American criminal justice system doesn’t really care when black people are killed. Here is Slate writer Jamelle Bouie making the argument — with a reference to the recent non-verdict of former police officer Michael Slager, who shot and killed Walter Scott, a black man who was unarmed and had his back to the officer at the time:
let me correct that: i guess i didn't i realize that people other than cops could execute (black) people in the streets with impunity.— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) December 2, 2016
Since, you can shoot a fleeing black person in the back and, if you are a cop, you'll get the benefit of the doubt. https://t.co/icoqdb3reF— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) December 2, 2016
my reaction to the deadlocked jury in the michael slager trial. pic.twitter.com/RLWiB1IovB— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) December 3, 2016
Sheriff Normand pushed back against these allegations, saying that his office had to take some time to conduct its initial investigation of the shooting.
Normand also referenced statistics on “black-on-black murder” to argue that people should be more worried about black people killing each other than a white man killing a black man in a road rage incident. Of course, this ignores that people can care about multiple things at once. And it also overlooks that one reason crime and violence is so high within some black communities is because the criminal justice system does a poor job protecting black people.
In New York City, for instance, 86 percent of 2013 homicides involving a white victim were solved, compared with 45 percent of those involving a black victim, according to an analysis by the New York Daily News. And David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, told Mother Jones that in minority communities, clearance rates for murders and nonfatal shootings can get “pathetically low. They can easily fall down to single digits.”
So the fact that someone may be able to get away with killing a black man and that violence is disproportionately high in some black communities really may come down to the exact same problem: a justice system that’s apathetic to black lives.
“Stand your ground” may be linked to McKnight’s death
Another aspect to both the Zimmerman and Gasser cases is “stand your ground” laws in Florida and Louisiana, respectively.
Under standard self-defense laws, someone who’s under threat must first try to retreat if it’s safe to do so before using force — what’s called the “duty to retreat.” But if a “stand your ground” law is in place, someone can, well, stand his ground, and use up to lethal force even if he can safely retreat while under imminent threat.
“Stand your ground” captured a lot of media attention after Martin’s death, because it was widely believed that it would play a role in Zimmerman’s defense. But that ended up not being the case: During the trial, it was only mentioned in the jury instructions and in passing by the prosecutor. Zimmerman, instead, was acquitted under a more typical self-defense argument.
Zimmerman never appeared to have a chance to retreat once he got into a fight with Martin. His injuries and the forensic evidence suggest that he was lying on the floor with Martin on top of him and hitting him as he opened fire. In those last moments, Zimmerman was under serious physical threat and couldn’t retreat, so he was legally allowed to use force under a typical self-defense law. (Of course, there’s an open question over whether Zimmerman could have avoided the entire encounter to begin with by simply not following Martin. But self-defense law is generally about whether you’re under threat at the moment you use force, not what happened beforehand.)
One way “stand your ground” was relevant to Zimmerman’s case, however, was the initial decision to let him go free. A letter signed by Sanford City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. explained, “By Florida Statute, law enforcement was PROHIBITED from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time.”
It’s unclear if “stand your ground” played a similar role in Gasser’s release.
It’s also unclear if Gasser’s defense will rely on “stand your ground.” Based on what we know so far, Gasser might have been unable to retreat even if he wanted to, because other cars may have been blocking his way on the road when he shot McKnight. And if Gasser didn’t have the ability to retreat, he can argue a simple self-defense standard, not a “stand your ground” standard, to justify his actions. (Still, the sheriff acknowledged that “stand your ground” is one factor in his department’s investigation.)
Given that these cases suggest “stand your ground” laws are limited, why do they exist in the first place? Typically, supporters of these laws argue that they allow people to defend themselves and deter would-be criminals from carrying out an attack. The thinking is simple: If would-be criminals know that just about anyone can turn around and use up to lethal force when under threat, these wrongdoers are going to be less likely to carry out criminal acts.
But a 2016 review of the research, published in Epidemiologic Reviews, found that most studies looking at “stand your ground” and similar “castle doctrine” laws — which only remove the duty to retreat in your home — found that they actually correlated with increases in homicides. The one study that found “castle doctrine” was associated with reductions in homicides came from a widely discredited researcher. The others found increases in homicides associated with “stand your ground” and “castle doctrine” laws.
Researchers summarized one of the more recent studies they reviewed: “stand your ground laws were associated with a 6.8% increase in homicide rates, mainly driven by increments (14.7%) in homicide rates among white males.”
So while it’s unclear what role “stand your ground” may ultimately play in the trial over McKnight’s death, these laws really are associated with more deaths.