NEW ORLEANS (AP) – The man who killed former NFL player Joe McKnight cannot be tried again on murder charges, now that his less serious manslaughter conviction has been overturned, the Louisiana Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.
Authorities in the New Orleans suburb of Jefferson County originally charged Ronald Gasser with second-degree murder during the Highway Fury McKnight firing squad.
The jury returned with a lesser manslaughter charge. But this verdict was passed by 10-2 votes. He was expelled along with Gasser’s 30-year prison sentence, and a new trial was ordered after the Supreme Court ruled the dissenting sentences unconstitutional.
The prosecutor’s office wanted another chance to secure a murder conviction. State District Judge Ellen Shearer Kovacs ruled in February that a retrial of Gasser for murder would violate his constitutional protection against double jeopardy.
On Thursday, the 5th State Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 2-1 panel decision.
“During the trial of the defendant in this case, Louisiana law did not require a unanimous verdict to acquit the accused,” Judge Hans Liljeberg wrote in his opinion, joined by Judge Robert Chaisson.
“Thus, when the jury passed a 10: 2 conviction of manslaughter, it served as a valid exoneration for the charge of second degree murder, precluding the re-trial of the accused of second degree murder on the basis of the principles of double jeopardy.”
Judge Mark Johnson disagreed. “To overturn a jury verdict condemning a defendant because it was an ambiguous jury verdict and then uphold an implied acquittal on the basis of the same ambiguous jury verdict is rationally inconsistent,” he wrote.
The Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on Thursday.
Gasser remains in jail pending trial.
Gasser, 54, fatally shot 28-year-old McKnight on December 1, 2016, after what authorities described as an ongoing 5-mile dispute over traffic and bridge chases in the New Orleans area.
Witnesses in a 2018 trial said McKnight was driving at high speed before the shooting – one prosecutor admitted to a jury that he “drove like a jerk.” But prosecutors argued that Gasser exacerbated the conflict by following McKnight to an exit he would not normally use.
Gasser’s defense team insisted that he shot McKnight in self-defense.
Gasser fired three shots at McKnight from his car. No weapons were found on or near McKnight’s body, authorities said.
Gasser was released by sheriff officials shortly after the incident, and a spokesman for the department said the shooting was justified under state “resilience” law.
McKnight was the John Curtis Christian High School soccer hero in Louisiana who spent three seasons with the New York Jets and one with the Kansas City Chiefs.