Jurors kept their eyes trained on the TV monitor on the wall of the Gretna courtroom Saturday, peering through a window of sorts and into Ronald Gasser’s first hours after he was taken in for questioning about gunning down former NFL football player Joe McKnight 13 months ago.
On the screen, they could see Gasser waiting alone in a Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office interrogation room on Dec. 1, 2016, getting up and down from his chair, pacing the room and muttering occasionally to himself as he waited for detectives to return. He had not yet been arrested and wouldn't be for another four days.
“I don’t know, man, I don’t know,” he said, sighing heavily.
After about 20 minutes, he began sniffling audibly, wiping his eyes with the bottom of his shirt and his sleeves.
“All he woulda had to do is stay in his truck,” he said, loudly and to no one in particular. “Just stay in your vehicle, brah. Don’t threaten my life.”
Moments later, he was seen slamming his hand down on the metal interrogation room table, jarring the courtroom of 24th Judicial District Judge Ellen Shirer Kovach.
Gasser, 56, sat Saturday with his attorneys just feet away from where the 8½-hour recording of his interrogation played, a monitor on the table in front of him playing it as well. He looked at the screen only occasionally and never for very long. Many eyes in the courtroom gallery watched him as well.
Gasser, wearing a slightly oversized black pinstripe suit jacket, looks older and smaller than the man in the video from just over a year ago. His balding pate of gray hair contrasts with the blond coiffured hairpiece he wore at the time of his arrest.
In an unusual move, the jury was asked to watch the entire video of Gasser’s questioning, along with two other shorter ones. An initial two-hour section of the video was played Friday, as Gasser's trial for second-degree murder began; the rest was viewed Saturday.
During Saturday's footage, Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office detectives Donald Meunier and Brad Roniger quizzed Gasser about his gun ownership and what happened during the minutes leading up to when he shot McKnight three times at a Terrytown intersection during a traffic-related argument.
The detectives established that Gasser knew McKnight's hands were empty when he got out of his truck and approached Gasser's passenger-side window. That was moments before Gasser shot him with a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun.
Gasser said he didn't know whether McKnight could quickly draw a weapon from his waistband.
More than three hours into the interview, the detectives' questions to Gasser seemed to become more skeptical.
They asked why he didn't drive to the nearest police station or a crowded parking lot to cool things off. They were baffled at his claim that he didn't try to call 911 until after the shooting.
Gasser told them he was too shaken to unlock his phone.
Meunier said he was still puzzled why Gasser went straight from pulling out his gun to shooting a man whose hands he knew to be empty.
"You're not worried about a fistfight. You've been in those before," Meunier offered, asking if McKnight's words alone could have been that intimidating.
Gasser said it was difficult to explain the threat precisely but that it was more than words and that McKnight had crossed a line.
"You can't predetermine how you perceive a threat," he said. "That is something you don't calculate. That's spontaneous."
"In my head, you don't produce a gun unless you're going to (expletive) shoot it," Gasser said at another point. "In my mind, if I don't shoot, I'm (expletive) dead."
Gasser said pulling into a parking lot wasn't an option because that could have given McKnight too much open space to attack him.
He scoffed at the idea of trying to intimidate McKnight with his gun, saying McKnight had repeatedly threatened to kill him as they chased each other over the Crescent City Connection and into the West Bank.
Gasser said McKnight threw a cup of liquid at his car while the two were stopped on Gen. de Gaulle Drive and that, at one point, he deliberately made a turn from the wrong lane and McKnight followed him.
Both investigators also suggested that a work ladder Gasser had in his passenger seat was a barrier protecting him from any lunge that McKnight might make toward him. They also said there is a big difference between lunging and trying to fling open a car's passenger door.
Gasser, a telecommunications contractor, has claimed he wasn't sure which action McKnight may have intended. But he feared both.
He told investigators at one point that he considers all life precious and that he feels bad when he kills a bug. "I don't even kill rats — rats," he said. "A human being — that's never crossed my mind."
The detectives, though, asked why he bought a gun if life is so precious to him and why he practiced with it at a gun range.
Gasser said he didn’t consider himself obsessed with guns or a gun enthusiast. He said he carried a pistol only because he felt unsafe driving in the New Orleans area. He said he’s broken down on Interstate 10 before, and “when you have no weapon, it’s a scary feeling at night.”
Gasser claimed he'd consumed countless news reports of drive-by shootings and people being killed after their cars broke down. Just two nights earlier, he said, he'd heard about a kidnapping suspect engaged in a gun battle with police that involved more than 500 gunshots.
“It is to protect my life if I feel threatened, and it served that purpose today,” he said about his gun.
Gasser didn't mention a lawyer until three hours and 22 minutes into the interview, when he asked Roniger if he should get a defense attorney. Roniger told Gasser he couldn't answer that.
Roniger told prosecutor Seth Shute on Saturday that he didn't interpret that question as a request for defense counsel or he would have cut the interview off.
After five hours in the interrogation room, Gasser lay on his back on the floor, covering his eyes with his forearm.
Gasser had mentioned at one point that there were other guns at his house, and the detectives asked if officers could search his home.
Gasser was reluctant and then said the guns he mentioned were not his. The detectives told him he could be there during the search, and he agreed. “I have absolutely nothing to hide,” he said.
When the interview concluded, Gasser had finished three bottles of water and declined an offer of pizza, blaming nerves and lack of an appetite.
Saturday's interview footage referenced a 2006 incident in which Gasser was cited, but never prosecuted, for punching someone over a traffic incident at the same Terrytown intersection where McKnight was later killed. The state argues that incident shows Gasser has a history of escalating minor events.
The shooting of McKnight, a former John Curtis Christian High School football star and later a Southern California and New York Jets running back, ignited a storm of protest when the Sheriff's Office didn't arrest Gasser the night of the killing.
Black church leaders and civil rights groups questioned whether that would have happened if Gasser were black and McKnight white, instead of the other way around.
By The Advocate's count, the jury hearing the case against Gasser is overwhelmingly white — six white women, four white men, one Hispanic woman and one black woman.
A black man is among the three alternates also listening to the testimony, though alternates are dismissed before deliberations begin unless they are needed to replace any of the 12 jurors.
Gasser faces mandatory life imprisonment if convicted of murder at the end of a trial expected to last through next week. His attorneys argue he killed McKnight justifiably and is not guilty of murder.
The trial will resume Monday.
Editor's note: This article originally misidentified Detective Donald Meunier and has now been corrected.