Louisiana judge: New trial in ex-USC running back Joe McKnight’s killing can’t be for murder

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Joe McKnight rushed for more than 2,200 yards in his USC career. (Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Joe McKnight rushed for more than 2,200 yards in his USC career. (Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The new trial for the man convicted of manslaughter in the 2016 shooting death of a former NFL player and University of Southern California running back following a traffic dispute cannot include a murder charge, a Louisiana judge has ruled.

The Times-Picayune’The New Orleans Advocate reports that the decision came Wednesday in the case of Ronald Gasser. Prosecutors tried Gasser in 2018 for second-degree murder in a shooting following a traffic dispute in suburban New Orleans. But the jury came back with a 10-2 vote for conviction on a manslaughter charge in the death of Joe McKnight.

The U.S. Supreme Court has since held that Louisiana law allowing convictions on 10-2 or 11-1 votes is unconstitutional. That resulted in an order that Gasser be granted a new trial.

State District Judge Ellen Shirer Kovach said that trial cannot be a murder trial.

“To allow the State to retry the defendant on the second-degree murder charge violates defendant’s protections against double jeopardy,” District Judge Ellen Shirer Kovach said in her ruling, agreeing with Gasser’s lawyer, Dane Ciolino.

Prosecutors had argued that the Supreme Court’s ruling meant Gasser’s manslaughter verdict was void, but did not preclude another attempt to try him for murder.

“A 10-2 verdict is no verdict at all,” Assistant District Attorney Seth Shute wrote, later noting, “an illegal verdict acts as neither an acquittal nor a conviction.”

Ciolino had argued that the 10-2 verdict on a lesser charge in the murder trial was an acquittal on the murder charge and that the Supreme Court’s ruling “did not reverse or otherwise affect Mr. Gasser’s acquittal of the charge of second-degree murder.”

Prosecutors have indicated in state court records that they will appeal.

McKnight was a high school football hero at Louisiana’s John Curtis Christian School who went on to attend USC before playing three seasons for the New York Jets and one with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Gasser fatally shot McKnight on Dec. 1, 2016, after what authorities described as a rolling a 5-mile (8-kilometer) traffic dispute and chase over a New Orleans area bridge.

Witnesses at the 2018 trial said McKnight had been weaving in and out of traffic at high speed before the shooting. Prosecutors acknowledged to the jury that he was, in the words of Shute, “driving like a jerk.” But they argued that Gasser escalated the conflict, following him down an exit that he would not ordinarily have taken.

Gasser claimed self defense and said McKnight lunged into his car. Prosecutors said physical evidence proved Gasser lied.

McKnight was a high school football hero at Louisiana’s John Curtis Christian School who went on to attend USC and played three seasons for the New York Jets and one with the Kansas City Chiefs.

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