The trial of a man accused of killing two Black men along city streets and shooting into the home of a Black family that lived down his street opened Thursday in a Baton Rouge courtroom, with prosecutors saying Kenneth Gleason inflicted a "four-day streak of terror" on the region in 2017.

In her opening statement, Assistant District Attorney Dana Cummings recounted how, just after midnight on Sept. 11, 2017, gunfire rang through a home in Hickory Ridge, a subdivision off Coursey Boulevard. Days later, a homeless man was gunned down at a Florida Street bus stop, and not long after, long-time Louie's restaurant employee Donald Smart was fatally shot while walking to work.

While the trial centers on Smart's death, prosecutors will be allowed to show evidence linking Gleason to the other shootings, including the death of Bruce Cofield, 59, at a bus stop on Florida Street near South Acadian Thruway. 

Gleason, 27, is accused of starting the violence by shooting into a home on Sandy Ridge Drive, in Hickory Ridge. Two teenagers were inside the home while their mother worked an overnight nurse shift. Neither were injured.

“It was the beginning of a four-day streak of terror in Baton Rouge,” Cummings told jurors.

Gleason, who is White, faces a first-degree murder charge in the death of Smart, 49, who was shot dead on a street north of the LSU campus. Prosecutors have won court permission to present evidence that Gleason has made references to Adolf Hitler and cleansing, but they cannot tell jurors that a drawing of a swastika was found in Gleason's cell after his arrest.

Prosecutors said they’ll rely heavily on digital records that show “incriminating” activity on Gleason’s phone, including evidence he was in the area at the time of Smart’s death and had been searching for information about the case before his arrest.

Defense lawyers argued the prosecutors’ evidence is circumstantial and said media attention to the shooting pressured police to make a quick arrest.

“Make them prove it to you,” said defense lawyer Ashly Van Earl. “They can’t be like an amateur magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat."

No gun was ever recovered from Gleason, though prosecutors say they plan to show he had purchased a gun just a year before the shootings and had taken it to a conceal-and-carry class.

The first-degree murder charge carries a mandatory life sentence if he’s convicted by a unanimous jury; prosecutors opted against seeking the death penalty after speaking to Smart's family. Gleason has pleaded not guilty and has awaited trial in the parish jail for more than three years after being denied bond.

Gleason was also indicted on two counts of attempted second-degree murder in which he’s accused of firing several shots into the home of the only Black family on Sandy Ridge Drive, just a few doors down from where Gleason had been living with his parents. One of the bullets traveled through a couch, under a chair, out a back window and through a wall before striking a shed.

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Thursday's testimony focused on the non-fatal shooting near Gleason's family home. One neighbor who had called 911 after hearing gunfire testified he saw Gleason outside shortly after he called police but at the time didn't think anything of it.

Lawyers have yet to call witnesses related to the two fatal shootings. 

The trial is expected to last until at least next week, and attorneys spent a full three days selecting jurors.

That process, too, had been contentious as prosecutors argued Gleason’s legal team had been improperly disqualifying Black jurors. Defense lawyers argued that it disqualified potential jurors for comments they made that would indicate bias or other reasons. Only one out of 12 members of the jury they ultimately selected are Black, despite the pool of candidates being about 40% non-White.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said last week that his office is confident that after a full presentation of the evidence "justice will prevail."

Authorities have said the three shootings were apparently random and possibly racially motivated. None of the crime scenes was close to another.

A Baton Rouge police detective testified in a 2019 pre-trial hearing that a witness told police a White man got out of his car and shot Cofield, who then rolled into the street. The shooter then stood over Cofield and fired several more shots. The detective said nearly a dozen bullets were recovered from the victim’s body, and 13 shell casings were recovered from the scene.

At the time of Smart’s shooting, two LSU students were in nearby park at the time and told police a man drove up in a red car and shot Smart. The shooter then got out of his car, walked over to the victim and continued shooting.

Authorities have said DNA evidence linked Gleason to Cofield's killing and to the nonfatal shooting, as did ballistics evidence.

Gleason is not charged with a hate crime, but prosecutors said last week that his cellphone records will be used in his trial and contained "repeated references" to Adolf Hitler and cleansing. The Associated Press reported in September 2017 that law enforcement also found a copy of a Hitler speech during a search of Gleason's home.

A sketch of a swastika was found in Gleason's holding cell in 2017, but prosecutors said the drawing won't be shown to the jury because it had been misfiled and wasn't disclosed to defense lawyers in a timely manner.

Earl said Gleason studied German when he attended LSU for a year in 2012.

He also pointed to Gleason’s upbringing, saying he graduated with honors from Baton Rouge Magnet High School, a selective program often referred to as the city's flagship public school and became an Eagle Scout in 2012, completing a construction project at St. John's United Methodist Church to earn the rank.


Email Joe Gyan Jr. at jgyan@theadvocate.com.