Last week, I discussed the Castle Doctrine as it related to the shooting death of former NFL running back Joe McKnight in Louisiana. At that time, the shooter, Ronald Gasser, remained uncharged but local police recently filed a criminal complaint charging him with the crime of manslaughter and not murder. In Louisiana, like Pennsylvania, criminal homicide is the intentional, knowing, reckless or negligent killing of another person. Murder is the most serious form of homicide, while manslaughter is the lesser offense within that category.
Manslaughter is an intentional killing without justification. This lack of justification is sometimes the mistaken belief that a person is acting in self-defense or an intense feeling which causes the person to act impulsively (the heat of passion). The shooter in the Joe McKnight case was charged with manslaughter and it appears that police didn’t have enough to charge him with murder. The evidence indicates that Gasser shot McKnight following an argument. During the argument, Gasser was in his car and McKnight was outside of it. While the Castle Doctrine protects a person’s right to defend himself either in his or her own home or within their vehicle, McKnight wasn’t armed in this case.
While Gasser had a right to defend himself, McKnight’s lack of a weapon may have caused police to conclude that he acted under the mistaken belief that his life was in jeopardy. If Gasser’s case proceeds to trial, his defense will more than likely argue that McKnight was an imposing figure despite the fact that he was only 5 foot, eleven inches and approximately 200 pounds. Gasser’s attorneys will need to establish that McKnight was acting in such a way that Gasser had a reasonable belief of serious bodily of serious bodily injury or death. This is the only way that Gasser will be able to justify the shooting of McKnight. While we don’t know what McKnight was doing prior to being shot, the witnesses in this case will be critical if Gasser intends on presenting a self-defense argument.
Manslaughter, however, is much less serious to murder, but still subjects Gasser to a significant jail sentence if he is convicted. In Pennsylvania manslaughter is a felony of the first degree (Louisiana doesn’t have degrees of felonies) and Gasser would face a state prison sentence if convicted. Even if Gasser has no prior criminal history he would face and maximum sentence of possibly 40 years in Louisiana. (In Pennsylvania, he would face a maximum sentence of 20 years but the sentencing guidelines would likely be 36-54 months (assuming no prior record).
Gasser, however would also probably face aggravated assault charges which could subject him to a max 20 year term in our Commonwealth. In addition to the manslaughter charge, there is no indication that Gasser will be charged with any type of illegal gun or firearms charge in this case, but his violent past may have prohibited him from carrying a firearm in Louisiana legally. While unlawful possession of a firearm is a misdemeanor in Louisiana, unlike in Pennsylvania, it is a felony offense in that State if the person has a prior conviction for certain offenses, usually violent felonies.
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