A Jefferson Parish jury on Friday afternoon began deliberating the fate of Ronald Gasser, the Gretna man charged with murder following the fatal shooting of ex-NFL running back Joe McKnight in Terrytown a little more than a year ago.
As of just before 8 p.m., the jury had not reached a verdict.
In their closing arguments Friday morning, prosecutors Shannon Swaim and Seth Shute took aim at the theory that the defendant was a terrorized motorist who pulled the trigger out of fear for his life. They told jurors that Gasser was the instigator who goaded McKnight into getting out of his car, only to gun him down through Gasser's open passenger window at the traffic light at Behrman Highway and Holmes Boulevard.
“Ronald Gasser lured him out of his car and shot him,” Shute said.
The prosecution argued that Gasser cannot legally say he fired in self-defense if the two men were trading obscenities and jockeying back and forth during the five-mile exchange that began on the Crescent City Connection on Dec. 1, 2016.
They also reminded jurors that Gasser told police the Terrytown exit was his regular route home, not the Gen. de Gaulle exit he and McKnight took that day.
“If he didn’t follow Mr. McKnight, we wouldn’t be here today,” Swaim said.
Defense attorney Matthew Goetz, however, characterized McKnight as an arrogant instigator who felt he could terrorize an innocent commuter who was simply trying to get home after work.
“This case wasn’t about challenge, it was about choice,” he said. “On Dec. 1, 2016, Mr. McKnight had a choice … and he chose to drive like a maniac. He chose to drive that way and he chose to almost kill (Gasser).”
Goetz said Gasser told police he had taken the Gen. de Gaulle exit to get home before, and that it was McKnight who shouldn’t have been on that road based on where his supervisor testified he was going that day.
Swaim told jurors Gasser was making a false and self-serving statement to police when he said McKnight was lunging for him, a gesture that the autopsy on McKnight showed couldn’t have happened based on the gunshot wound to his shoulder, according to testimony.
“The only thing in that car was (his left) hand and Mr. Gasser knows it,” she said.
Swaim said it isn’t reasonable to claim that someone resting a hand on a window amounts to forcible entry or an assault.
“This is not what this (self-defense) law intended,” she told the jury. “In your gut, you know that’s not right and that’s not entry.”
Shute noted Gasser told police that he had taken his gun out and put it next to him more than a mile away from the intersection where he shot McKnight, arguing he can’t say he was scared at the same time.
Shute told jurors that motorist Veronica Hoye testified that she heard McKnight yelling, “No, you get out of your car.” That suggested, as one of the detectives noted when questioning Gasser a few days later, that McKnight was responding to a challenge from Gasser.
McKnight “goes to the (car) door and he goes like this,” Shute said, leaning downward in front of the jury and resting his forearms on the jury box. “The trap is sprung. When Mr. McKnight accepted his invitation to get out, he shot him.”
Shute reminded jurors that Gasser’s first two statements made on the scene did not mention McKnight lunging into his car. He said then: “He cut me off and he got out on me,” and, “He got out, he put his hand in my car and I shot him.”
Shute said Gasser had trouble demonstrating or articulating the lunge or gesture he said McKnight made.
He pointed to testimony from a forensic pathologist that the bullet wound in McKnight’s right shoulder indicated his arm wasn’t raised at the time.
The prosecution played the video of Gasser telling police, “What I did today was the absolute, last resort,” but pointed out that he never called 911, turned his car around or even rolled his window up.
Goetz told jurors they should dismiss the second-guessing of investigators and attorneys about what Gasser could or should have done. "That’s not what you have to do,” he said.
Their job, he said, was to decide whether Gasser could reasonably feel he had no choice but to defend himself or repel McKnight once the former football star entered Gasser's car with his left hand.
Goetz told jurors his client was eight minutes from walking through his front door.
“Ronnie Gasser for the last 14 months has been through a living hell,” he told jurors. “Find him not guilty and finally send him home.”
Swaim said Gasser brought his problems on himself.
“It’s horrible. It shouldn’t have happened,” she said of the incident. “But that’s Mr. Gasser’s fault.”
Both sides revisited testimony the judge allowed about an April 2006 incident in which motorist John Shilling described being punched by Gasser after a road-rage argument at the same intersection where McKnight would be slain a decade later.
Although Gasser was never prosecuted on a citation he received after that fracas, prosecutors said it was evidence that he was hot-headed and tended to turn minor quarrels into physical confrontations.
During closing arguments, Goetz again took issue with testimony about the prior incident being allowed at the trial. “That is bull,” he said of the encounter, which was never prosecuted. “That is to dirty Ronnie up.”
Goetz said prosecutors had to use the earlier incident because the defendant had been honorably discharged from the military and had no prior criminal record.
“Let’s dig up a 10-year-old fistfight and try to make him look like an ass,” he said.
“I don’t have to use that to make him look like an ass,” Swaim retorted.
Gasser's account of that incident to police 10 years ago differed wildly from the one Shilling told to jurors this week. Swaim went through several elements of Gasser's story at that time, noting similarities between it and his side of the story in the McKnight killing, ending with his claim, "In self-defense, I struck him three times.”
“Sound familiar?” she said.
“It’s never Ronnie’s fault,” she said. “It’s always someone else’s fault.”
McKnight became a Louisiana high school football legend after helping John Curtis Christian School win three state championships, scoring more than 50 touchdowns during his last two seasons at the River Ridge school.
He later played for the University of Southern California as well as the NFL's New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs before injuries derailed his athletic career.