A state appeals court panel heard arguments Wednesday over whether the man convicted of killing former NFL player Joe McKnight in a road-rage incident should be acquitted or get a new trial.
Ronald Gasser was charged with second-degree murder for shooting McKnight from inside his car on Dec. 1, 2016, when McKnight came to Gasser's passenger-side window after they had stopped their cars at a Terrytown intersection.
The two men had engaged in an angry, tit-for-tat chase that began on the Crescent City Connection and ended with Gasser shooting McKnight at Behrman Highway and Holmes Boulevard.
Investigators testified that blood spatters indicated McKnight's hand was at most resting on the threshold of the open window of Gasser's vehicle, but the defense argued that was enough to justify the use of deadly force under the state's stand-your-ground law.
By a 10-2 vote, a jury found Gasser, 57, guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter in January 2018, and Judge Ellen Shirer Kovach of 24th Judicial District Court sentenced him to 30 years in prison, 10 shy of the maximum allowed under the law.
On Wednesday, Loyola University law professor Dane Ciolino argued two main points on Gasser's behalf before three judges of the 5th Louisiana Circuit Court of Appeal: that jurors should not have been allowed to hear about a previous road-rage incident Gasser was involved in because it was irrelevant to the McKnight case and unfairly prejudicial, and that the state did not prove the state law that allows a person to use lethal force to repel someone who enters their home or automobile did not apply to the shooting of McKnight.
During Gasser’s trial, prosecutors were allowed to introduce witnesses and evidence that in 2006, a motorist named John Schilling saw Gasser driving erratically and called the number on his truck, only to have Gasser answer the call and start cursing at him. Schilling testified that Gasser followed him to a gas station, got out of his car and punched him three times before driving away.
A sheriff’s deputy testified at the trial that when he interviewed Gasser a few days later about the incident, Gasser said it took place on the other side of the parish line in New Orleans, not Jefferson Parish, and that Schilling, not he, was the aggressor.
Ciolino said legal systems have long recognized that evidence of prior acts is prejudicial and have not allowed it just to show a defendant is a bad person who was once again doing wrong. There are exceptions, but Ciolino argued they don't apply in this case because there was no doubt Gasser shot McKnight and none of the facts surrounding the shooting were in dispute.
Arguing for Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick's office, Darren Allemand said the 2006 incident was relevant to rebut Gasser's self-defense claim in the McKnight shooting because in the earlier instance he assaulted another motorist and then claimed self-defense.
Judge Fredericka Wicker asked Ciolino whether a demonstrated propensity to instigate and escalate confrontations wouldn’t be relevant, and Ciolino said only in instances where there may be doubt that the defendant was involved in the crime.
Judge Jude Gravois said the state noted in its filing that other than presenting the evidence, prosecutors didn't include the prior incident in their arguments very much.
Wicker said 10 years was a long time to have elapsed between incidents, and Judge Robert Chaisson noted this was just one prior incident and asked how many instances constitute a pattern.
Allemand said those were both matters for the jury to decide.
As for whether prosecutors met their burden in proving Gasser's decision to shoot was unjustified, the panel probed Ciolino's contention that for McKnight simply to have broken the plane of Gasser's vehicle was enough to justify lethal force.
The judges noted that Gasser told police McKnight lunged into his car, which other evidence suggested was not true, and that there was a ladder in the passenger seat, which weakened Gasser's claim that he felt threatened. They questioned whether the law was intended to give people on the street a license to kill.
Ciolino said he considers the state law allowing lethal force to protect property to be flawed, but that it is clear nonetheless that it allows lethal force if a person reasonably believes the force to be necessary for protection. Unlike self-defense, so-called stand-your-ground laws explicitly — and controversially — remove the obligation to retreat, he said.
The 5th Circuit panel is expected to issue a decision within two or three months.
One issue not addressed in the hearing, but one Ciolino called "the elephant in the room," is that Gasser may get a new trial regardless. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule in the next year on whether less-than-unanimous jury verdicts violate the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and if it finds that they do while the Gasser verdict is under direct review, he likely would get a new trial.