Defense, prosecution spar as McKnight slaying trial opens

FILE - In this Dec. 12, 2016 file photo, a woman comforts an unidentified mourner as he cries into a scarf with University of Southern California colors before funeral services for former NFL football player Joe McKnight at the New Home Family Worship Center in New Orleans. The trial in a road-rage shooting that left McKnight dead was set to begin with jury selection Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018, in a New Orleans suburb. McKnight was shot to death by Ronald Gasser in the December 16 shooting. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

GRETNA, La. (AP) Claims of self-defense by the man who killed former NFL player Joe McKnight withered under scrutiny, a prosecutor told jurors Friday, but a defense lawyer insisted the shooter fired as McKnight approached his car, spewing obscenities and threats following a traffic confrontation in December 2016.

The conflicting claims were made in opening statements in the second-degree murder trial of Ronald Gasser, 56.

Defense lawyer Matthew Goetz said authorities in suburban New Orleans were under political pressure to make an arrest when Gasser was jailed days after the shooting. Goetz alluded to racial unrest that year in American cities, including the St. Louis area and Baton Rouge. Gasser is white; McKnight was black.

Seth Shute, an assistant District Attorney in Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish, acknowledged that Gasser was initially freed after the shooting. But Shute said Gasser was arrested after investigators talked to numerous witnesses and assembled physical evidence contradicting Gasser’s claim that McKnight, 28, had tried to lunge into his car through a passenger window after both vehicles stopped at a busy intersection.

Jurors were selected Tuesday. Opening statements were delayed because unusually frigid winter weather in south Louisiana prompted a two-day closure of the parish courthouse in the New Orleans suburb of Gretna.

Shute said jurors will hear from dozens of witnesses. Some will testify about what Shute called a ”mobile shouting match” that began on a bridge spanning the Mississippi River in New Orleans and continued into neighboring Jefferson Parish, Shute said. Others will talk about hearing the pop-pop-pop of three gunshots, seeing McKnight fall and watching as Gasser exited his car with his handgun still smoking.

Jurors also will hear a police officer recount Gasser’s first words at the shooting scene: ”He cut me off and got out on me.”

McKnight drove his gray SUV aggressively that afternoon, Shute acknowledged. There was a small amount of marijuana in his system and a ”therapeutic dose level” of Oxycodone in his system, he added, having noted that McKnight was training in hopes of returning to the NFL after an injury cut his pro career short.

But he said there was no gunpowder residue on McKnight, indicating he was not shot at the close range Gasser had indicated. And an examination of the wounds indicated that McKnight’s hands were resting on the window of Gasser’s car, with no sign that he had aggressively moved to get inside.

”His version of events does not match the physical evidence,” Shute said.

But Goetz countered that, ”Ronnie believed he (McKnight) was coming after him.”

He also claimed that, McKnight ”was trying to kill” Gasser by running him off the road in traffic, before the shooting.

McKnight was considered the No. 1 running back recruit in the country when he came out of John Curtis Christian School in Louisiana in 2006. He signed with the University of Southern California, where he ran for 2,213 yards and 13 touchdowns and caught 66 passes for 542 yards and two scores in three seasons.

In the NFL, he played three seasons for the New York Jets and one with the Kansas City Chiefs. He spent a season in the Canadian Football League, playing two games for the Edmonton Eskimos and three for the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

He was shot Dec. 1, 2016. Gasser never left the shooting scene and was initially freed after more than eight hours of questioning – which Shute said jurors will see.

Gasser’s release sparked protests, and some said race played a role in his release. Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, who has since retired, angrily denied that race played any role in the case. He recounted a painstaking investigation with more than 160 interviews.

Arrested on a manslaughter charge four days after the shooting, Gasser was indicted by a grand jury on the second-degree murder charge in February. If convicted as charged he would be sentenced to life in prison.

The trial is expected to last well into next week with state District Judge Ellen Kovach presiding.

The case echoes another New Orleans-area road-rage shooting from 2016. Former New Orleans Saints star Will Smith was gunned down that April. The shooter was later convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 25 years.