Joe McKnight walks through the tunnel onto FedExField on December 4, 2011. (Getty Images)
If reduced to a simple number, Joe McKnight became the 199th homicide victim last year in Jefferson and Orleans parishes, the two most populous parts of Greater New Orleans. Authorities called it a case of "road rage," an epidemic in a state with the highest per capita homicide rate in the country. Immediately, the story made national headlines because, simply, the implications were undeniable: an unarmed black man, killed by a white man; the dead man had played in the NFL, and his killer had been questioned at the scene then initially released with no charges.
Sheriff Newell Normand, a stocky man with blue eyes, shifted blame to Louisiana's "Stand Your Ground" laws during a press conference on December 2. "In this state, there are relative statutes that provide defenses to certain crimes," he said. He then added: "Everyone wants to make this about race. This isn't about race."
Over the next four days, Normand and his office interviewed, by his count, more than 160 people and 70 business owners from the bridge to the point of the shooting. But perhaps the key part of the investigation isn't the investigation itself. It's the moment when both McKnight and Gasser crossed a tiny sliver of a canal just 30 feet from where they eventually stopped at the corner of Behrman and Holmes. On one side of the canal is Orleans Parish, and on the other side Jefferson Parish—on one side blue, the other red.
"The demographics of the jury pool, the demographics of the power structure, the demographics of the population itself, in Jefferson versus Orleans, couldn't be more different," says Ramon Antonio Vargas, a journalist with the New Orleans Advocate, a local newspaper. The implication being if Gasser had been arrested in Orleans Parish, Tucker said, "He'd be under the jail."
"Everyone wants to make this about race. This isn't about race."
— SHERIFF NEWELL NORMAND
The shift between the two parishes began in the 1960s when white flight took hold of New Orleans, many moving to neighboring Jefferson Parish. Homogeneous enclaves gave rise to David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who served as a state representative out of Metairie, a Jefferson Parish community, and former Sheriff Harry Lee, a showman who found political capital in pandering to his constituents' fears. "If there are some young blacks driving a car late at night in a predominantly white neighborhood, they will be stopped," he once said.
When Lee died in 2007, his deputy, Normand, took over and maintained a tough approach, winning more than 90 percent of the vote in each of his election runs. But Morris Reed, president of the New Orleans chapter of the NAACP, says trust in the black community, which makes up a quarter of the parish, has been eroding after two black men were recently killed by deputies.
When Gasser wasn't immediately charged, a group protested in front of the sheriff's department. One person held up a sign that read, "A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY." At the crime scene, a makeshift memorial was erected, and someone left a handwritten letter surrounded by teddy bears that read, "Sheriff Normand is a racist."
Local journalists noted the similarities between McKnight's shooting and another killing in Jefferson Parish in 2013. After a dispute, Roger Batiste, a black man, shot and killed a white man from inside his car. Batiste evoked Stand Your Ground, an add-on to self-defense laws, drafted in part by the National Rifle Association, that allows for a person to simply "perceive" a threat in order to use deadly force—even if they could easily flee. Batiste, though, was still arrested at the scene and booked on second-degree murder. He later pleaded down to negligent homicide.
The problem with Stand Your Ground, Tucker says, is the law is "biased toward who is standing their ground."
On December 6, five days after McKnight's death, sheriff deputies announced Gasser had been arrested and booked on suspicion of manslaughter. The district attorney's office then had 60 days to formally charge or release him. Gasser was already known to local law enforcement for another road rage incident 10 years earlier at the same intersection where he shot McKnight. He had a dispute while driving, and when that driver, John Shilling, pulled over to the Shell station, Shilling said Gasser confronted him, spit on him and punched him. "I'm lucky," Shilling told New Orleans TV station WDSU. The charges were ultimately dismissed.
Jaiden McKnight, son of former NFL football player Joe McKnight, hugs his mother, Michelle Beltran, after McKnight's funeral service at the New Home Family Worship Center in New Orleans on December 12, 2016. Former USC and NFL player LenDale White (left) was a pallbearer. (AP Images)
Interviewed at his sister's house in December, Gasser's brother-in-law said Gasser has been mischaracterized and "everything will come out at the trial."
As the case passed to Jefferson Parish DA Paul Connick's office, the community's rage seemed to quell. Tucker, himself a former detective for the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Department under Harry Lee, met with the assistant district attorney for four hours on January 10 and left confident that charges, either manslaughter or murder two, would be filed in the coming days.
Gasser's attorneys have begun preparing a defense for what many in the public expect to be an explosive trial. "If there's neighbors across the street and we're yelling at each other, even if I start it, I don't think that is strong enough to say I caused this whole situation," Gerard Archer, one of the attorneys, says. "If the neighbor then comes in my home to attack me, I have the right to shoot him. Your vehicle is an extension of your home.
"These are two assholes acting like children."
Sheriff Normand seemed to echo those words in his second press conference on December 6, saying, "Two people engaged in bad behavior that day."
As so often happens, Tucker says, these subtle descriptions of events begin to blur the line between victim and perpetrator. "Dead men tell no stories," he says.
Later in Normand's profanity-laced press conference, he took questions from reporters. One woman stood up and asked if Normand understood "where the fear and angst by many in the community was coming from." She continued, saying "there's a black man shot and killed by a white man who is released."
Normand immediately pivoted and reiterated that this case wasn't about race. In that, he's only partially right. It's not just about race, or about Stand Your Ground, or Jefferson Parish, or road rage; it's about a man named Joe. And perhaps, the only question worth asking is this: Who is Joe McKnight?
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