Gretna telecommunications contractor Ronald Gasser was found guilty of manslaughter Friday night for fatally shooting ex-NFL pro Joe McKnight at a Terrytown intersection a little more than a year ago.
A Jefferson Parish jury returned the verdict about 8 p.m. after more than seven hours of deliberations.
Gasser now faces up to 40 years in prison. He would have faced mandatory life imprisonment if found guilty of second-degree murder, as charged.
After seven tense hours of deliberations, a palpable sense of relief permeated the lobby of Jefferson Parish’s courthouse complex Friday night…
Judge Ellen Shirer Kovach of 24th Judicial District Court will decide how many years he will serve when she sentences him March 15.
Manslaughter, under the law, is a homicide that would ordinarily be second-degree murder but that was committed in the heat of passion immediately after a provocation that would cause an ordinary person to lose self-control.
The jury picked to weigh the case against Gasser consisted of six white women, four white men, one Hispanic woman and one black woman.
"We're obviously disappointed with the verdict," defense attorney Matthew Goetz said as he left the courthouse, adding that he thinks the back-and-forth confrontation that Gasser and McKnight engaged in while driving and weaving through traffic may have muddied the waters for the jury when it came to figuring out who was the aggressor.
Goetz said he plans to file an appeal.
Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick issued a statement praising the jurors for the "incredible attentiveness they spent following the evidence." He said he hopes the McKnight family "can find peace in knowing that justice has been served in this case."
McKnight's sister, Johanna, who briefly took the witness standing during the trial, wept with her face buried in her shirt as she left the courtroom surrounded by supporters. Some of them joined her in crying just moments after the verdict was delivered.
Trailing behind them were the assistant district attorneys who prosecuted Gasser, Shannon Swaim and Seth Shute. Both were embraced by many of the deputies who investigated McKnight's killing and then took the witness stand as experts over the six days of testimony at Gasser's trial.
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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.
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.”
Twelve jurors will begin deliberating the fate of Ronald Gasser on Friday, a task that will require them to weigh the evidence presented durin…
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.”
Shilling said Friday after the trial that he thinks his story was instructive for jurors. "He's telling stories that only he can say happened because no one else saw it," he said.
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.
Both sides rested their case Thursday evening in the second-degree murder trial of Ronald Gasser after hours of testimony by a forensic examin…