Both sides rested their case Thursday evening in the second-degree murder trial of Ronald Gasser after hours of testimony by a forensic examiner and a crime scene expert, both of whom said the physical evidence inside Gasser’s cramped blue Infiniti coupe contradicted his account of the fatal shooting of Joe McKnight.
The former NFL football player’s body lacked the gunpowder burns and markings consistent with being shot at close range — the claim at the heart of Gasser’s contention that McKnight reached into his half-open passenger-side window, forcing Gasser to fire in self-defense.
On cross-examination, the defense sought to downplay that testimony, noting a metal ladder in Gasser's front passenger seat also lacked the physical evidence that would suggest a gun was fired near it, though one indisputably was.
After the jury members examined the evidence laid out before them, the state rested its case. Gasser indicated he would not testify in his own defense, and the defense also rested.
Closing arguments will be presented Friday morning before Judge Ellen Shirer Kovach in 24th Judicial District Court in Gretna, after which the jury will begin deliberating.
Gasser admits to shooting McKnight during an argument on Dec. 1, 2016, at Behrman Highway and Holmes Boulevard. The two men were driving their vehicles across the Crescent City Connection about 2:30 p.m. and began arguing with one another, and a tit-for-tat pursuit began, ending with McKnight pulling up on the right side of Gasser’s car, getting out and standing at his passenger-side window.
Gasser faces life in prison if convicted of second-degree murder, though the jury could return a lesser verdict of manslaughter or negligent homicide. It could also rule the killing was justifiable, deciding Gasser had the right to fire on McKnight because he had crossed the threshold of his vehicle.
Timothy Scanlan, who conducted the crime scene re-creation for the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, was on the stand for more than three hours Thursday, explaining how investigators came to believe McKnight could not have been lunging at Gasser through a half-open passenger window.
He said all the evidence suggests McKnight was at least 2½ feet away from Gasser when he was shot, and that a lunging attacker would have had soot, burns, gunpowder marks and other telltale signs of a close-quarters shooting.
“Once he entered that car, we’d expect to see (gunpowder) residue on the shirt and stippling on the skin,” Scanlan said.
He noted McKnight’s face would have been right in the line of fire were he leaning into the window and that he would have had gunpowder marks on his bare arms.
“You’d be covered here with gunpowder,” Scanlan said, motioning his hand in circles over prosecutor Shannon Swaim’s torso.
Defense attorney Matthew Goetz, however, established that authorities waited a few weeks to test McKnight's shirt for evidence of gunpowder marks. He also said there wasn't much space between the two cars and that McKnight would have had to bend over dramatically for the bullets to hit him in the angle that they did without his actually being inside the car.
Goetz also said McKnight could've gotten in a more natural position when he was shot if his driver's door was open. Jurors have been shown at least one photo taken shortly after the shooting showing that door was open.
Analysis of the fine spray of blood on the passenger-side door of Gasser's car suggests McKnight’s hand was dangling inside the window, about an inch or so away from the inside edge of the door, Scanlan said.
Before leaving the witness stand, Scanlan told Swaim that Gasser's narrative about the final moments before McKnight's killing "is inconsistent with the physical evidence in this case."
Many of the exchanges between Scanlan and Goetz were heated.
At one point, Goetz mockingly asked Scanlan, "Science doesn't lie, right?"
Scanlan replied, "It can be spun."
Goetz then noted that Scanlan's boss, Sheriff Joe Lopinto, is running for re-election in March. He asked Scanlan whether his career would be in jeopardy if Gasser is acquitted, mentioning the potential "egg" on Lopinto's face.
As Swaim objected, Goetz said Scanlan didn't have to answer the question. But Scanlan later told Swaim, "The outcome of this trial has no bearing on my future."
Earlier in the day, Dr. Dana Trosclair, chief forensic pathologist for the Jefferson Parish Coroner’s Office, said the trajectories of the three bullets that struck McKnight suggested he was leaning downward.
She said there was enough internal bleeding from the wound to McKnight’s right shoulder to kill him, and that he had blood in his lungs and froth in his throat that suggested he was breathing after he was shot.
The bullet that entered his chest punctured his liver, kidney and diaphragm, she testified.
The jury also went to the JPSO crime scene lab to look over Gasser’s car. The ladder had been placed back in the passenger seat, and jurors viewed it through both windows and examined the bullet hole in the door.
Update: 6:20 p.m. Ronald Gasser, the man charged with murdering ex-NFL pro Joe McKnight, will not testify in his own defense. And his attorney…