Jurors heard competing accounts Wednesday morning of a 2006 road rage incident involving Ronald Gasser, the Gretna man facing possible life in prison for the shooting death of former NFL player Joe McKnight.
They also watched for the second time key portions of the first two videotaped statements Gasser gave to authorities following the Dec. 1, 2016, shooting at Behrman Highway and Holmes Boulevard in Terrytown, as prosecutors honed in on Gasser’s description of what McKnight was doing at the moment Gasser shot him three times.
But it was an incident a decade earlier that took center stage as prosecutors called John Shilling to the witness stand. Shilling told the jury he was driving along Behrman in April 2006 when his car was almost clipped by a red truck that was being driven erratically.
Shilling said the truck had a sign on the side with a business name and a phone number, which he dialed. Shilling said he soon realized he was on the line with the truck's driver, sitting in the lane next to him.
It was Gasser, he said, cursing him out and telling him that Gasser's driving was “none of your (expletive) business,” Shilling testified.
Shilling said he hung up and turned into a gas station at Holmes and Behrman — the same intersection where McKnight was later killed — to escape the situation and fill his tank.
While gassing up, he testified, he caught a glimpse of someone running up to him. Shilling said he quickly crossed his arms over his head but that Gasser nevertheless struck him three times with closed fists, twice in the head and once on his shoulder.
Shilling said he called the police after exchanging words with Gasser, who he said threatened him again, ran off to his truck and sped away.
His account of the incident contrasted sharply with the narrative Gasser offered Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office investigators when they called him in to give a statement.
The officer who took his statement said Gasser admitted throwing punches but claimed the altercation happened on the street and in Orleans Parish. The officer, Melvin Francis, said Gasser’s account had Shilling out of his car in the street, spitting on his car.
He said Gasser claimed to have thrown punches only in self-defense, saying, "I only got out of my car because this guy was acting like a nut and he got out of his car first.”
Gasser was never charged in that earlier incident. After his statement, he was given a misdemeanor summons. But after a problem delivering Shilling a subpoena — they mistakenly thought the address listed on the subpoena was a vacant house — the criminal matter was dropped.
Judge Ellen Shirer Kovach of 24th Judicial District Court decided before the trial that jurors would be allowed to hear about the 2006 incident.
The defense objected, saying it was irrelevant and prejudicial. But prosecutors with Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick’s office said it shows Gasser had a history of escalating minor incidents on the road.
Jurors also heard from Lt. Donald Meunier, one of the officers who interrogated Gasser during three sessions after McKnight's shooting death in 2016, the first two coming before Gasser’s arrest and the third afterward.
Prosecutors played about a half-dozen clips from the first two interviews, and Assistant District Attorney Shannon Swaim asked Meunier if Gasser ever said he was touched by McKnight, or if he ever said his alleged attacker had his hands out of view.
Meunier said no.
The clips showed Gasser asserting over and over that McKnight was threatening him, that he was in fear for his life and that McKnight was either touching or had his hands inside his car.
Gasser demonstrated for investigators how McKnight, he said, was leaning forward with his hands on the car window, which was half-down.
However, Gasser would pause when he got to the point at which he said McKnight lunged at him, and he had trouble describing for investigators exactly what McKnight did.
“It was some sort of gesture,” he said at one point. “I don’t know exactly what he was attempting to do.”
“There are a few seconds that were really blank," he said.
“I just know the threat was very real,” he protested at another point in the questioning.
Meunier testified he was surprised to learn, between the first and second interviews with Gasser, that McKnight had no gunpowder marks on him, given Gasser's account that he fired point-blank while McKnight leaned into his car.
The trial is in its fifth day of testimony in 24th Judicial District Court in Gretna.