Jurors on Monday heard some of the first testimony to contradict Ronald Gasser’s claim that he was attacked by a screaming, swearing Joe McKnight when he shot the former NFL football player through the open passenger side-window of his car at a Terrytown intersection in December 2016.
The jury also got a firsthand look at a bulky aluminum stepladder that Gasser, a telecommunications contractor, had folded in his front passenger seat on the day of the killing. Prosecutors argue the presence of the ladder casts doubt on Gasser's claim that McKnight lunged through the window toward him moments before the shooting occurred.
Gasser, who faces life in prison if convicted of second-degree murder, told police McKnight was “frothing at the mouth” and screaming while he lunged at Gasser, prompting Gasser to grab his .40-caliber handgun and shoot McKnight three times, killing him.
Some witnesses backed up Gasser's account of an angry confrontation, while others did not.
Tiffany Benjamin testified Friday that while she heard “elevated voices” coming from the two cars stopped in front of her on Dec. 1, 2016, she did not perceive an intense argument.
In fact, Benjamin, who spent a year as a New Orleans police officer, said she assumed the two men simply knew each other and were chatting while they waited for the light to turn green. Her only real concern as she talked on the phone and fiddled with her new Apple watch was whether they would notice when the light changed.
Moments later, three gunshots rang out.
Andrew Bailey, who was across the intersection facing Gasser and McKnight’s vehicles, said he initially thought McKnight was a panhandler asking Gasser for money.
McKnight was standing straight up but then crumpled to the ground after the gunfire, Bailey testified, adding, "I remember like it was yesterday."
Wendell Sam, who was behind Gasser and McKnight waiting to pull onto Behrman Highway from the gas station near the Holmes Boulevard intersection, said he heard someone yell “bitch” after the gunshots were fired.
Defense attorney Matthew Goetz used his cross-examination to highlight any limits on what the witnesses were in a position to observe. Benjamin’s windows were rolled up, for example, and he established that Bailey was at least 60 yards away from the shooting.
Bailey's testimony included elements that were spreading quickly through word of mouth in the moments immediately after the shooting. He told investigators that he thought he had seen Gasser stand over McKnight and fire at him multiple times after the initial volley of gunshots.
Both Goetz and Assistant District Attorney Seth Shute have said the police investigation turned up no evidence that this actually happened.
"I'm just telling you what I saw, whether it helps or hurts," Bailey told Goetz.
Corey Newell, who was stopped in traffic behind Gasser and McKnight, told jurors he came forward to investigators to contradict people quoted in news reports that Gasser may have shouted racial slurs while standing over McKnight's body.
"That just wasn't what I saw," Newell said.
Other witnesses confirmed Gasser's contention that McKnight was irate in the moments before the shooting.
Lakeisha Williams, who was walking to a nearby bus stop, heard two people loudly arguing and cursing at each other shortly before the gunfire.
She said she went into McKnight's car with another bystander to get his phone so they could call his family and tell them he'd been shot.
Kenny Woods, who was driving near the scene, testified that he saw Gasser holding both hands up, waving a gun in his right hand, after McKnight was mortally wounded. "I told you not to get in my car! I told you not to get in my car!" Woods recalled Gasser shouting.
Clarence Sam testified that he saw the two vehicles driving fast behind him while he was on Behrman. He said Gasser managed to get ahead of McKnight, who then chased Gasser down.
Sam said he drove past the two while they were next to each other at the light with his windows down and could hear McKnight yelling expletives.
Prosecutors, nevertheless, made the case that the unarmed McKnight could not have posed much of a threat from the passenger side of the vehicle, given the stepladder resting on the seat between the two men.
At one point, Shute rested the ladder — wider than him and up to his chest — on a wall opposite the jury box. As he carried it over, he apologized, "It's a little awkward; it's so big."
Gasser told investigators in a recorded interview played for jurors Monday that he believed McKnight may have touched the ladder. But he said he didn't know if the contact would have been enough to leave McKnight's DNA, none of which was found on the ladder, according to testimony.
Prosecutors during the same interrogation also asked Gasser how it was possible that he could have fired his gun from inside the vehicle, if McKnight was lunging at him, without hitting him at point-blank range. The prosecutors said such a shot would have left tell-tale gunpowder wounds, which were never discovered on McKnight's body.
In the video clip, Gasser maintained that McKnight quickly recoiled from him when he noticed the pistol. "I don't know how I remember that," he said.
Much of the testimony added further details to what was known publicly about the shooting.
Benjamin, the former police officer, said she happened to be looking at a nearby gas station when the shooting occurred and that when she turned back toward the vehicles in front of her, she saw Gasser holding a gun in his hand.
She said he backed toward her, and the way he was holding the gun made her think she might have just witnessed a police shooting.
“I just thought it was going to be an ugly scene real quick,” he said.
Wendell Sam, who heard someone yell the word “bitch,” said he was reaching down for a cigarette lighter when he heard the three gunshots.
Sam then got out of his vehicle and approached McKnight. He said when Gasser noticed him he pointed the gun at his face.
“You don’t want to shoot me,” Sam recalled telling Gasser. “You shoot me and you got more problems than you already have.”
Sam testified that Gasser lowered the gun while Sam and another bystander attended to McKnight, who was still alive and trying to talk.
Sam and the other bystander moved the body and began doing CPR but to no avail.
Sam said Gasser protested, “He came at me; you seen it, you seen it. He came at me.”
Assistant District Attorney Shannon Swaim asked Sam if Gasser had asked how McKnight was doing or offered to help. Sam said he didn’t.
Another portion of the interview played Monday showed investigators asking Gasser for permission to search his phones. They had searched his home earlier and found nothing pertinent to the investigation.
Gasser was reluctant at first, saying he had "pornographic pictures" on his phone. But then he agreed after investigators clarified that they were only interested in checking whether he had any materials relevant to the shooting.
The trial is expected to run through the week in 24th Judicial District Judge Ellen Shirer Kovach's court in Gretna.