Jury selection in Gasser road rage trial goes late, trial to resume Thursday
Freezing temperatures prompted the closure of 24th Judicial District Court on Wednesday, suspending for a day Ronald Gasser’s second-degree murder trial, which saw jury selection continue late into the night Tuesday.
Opening arguments are expected at some point Thursday, and 11 potential jurors had been selected by about 5 p.m. on Tuesday.
When the trial begins, 12 jurors and four alternates will hear testimony about the events of Dec. 1, 2016, when Gasser shot former NFL running back Joe McKnight as McKnight stood at the passenger-side window of Gasser’s Infiniti sedan while the two argued at a Terrytown intersection.
The two had been driving in their vehicles on the Crescent City Connection when police say McKnight cut Gasser off in traffic and an argument ensued. The two men both drove to the intersection of Holmes Boulevard at Behrman Highway, where McKnight got out of his car and approached Gasser’s vehicle. After the two argued, police say Gasser took a gun from between his driver’s seat and the center console and shot McKnight three times, killing him.
Gasser is claiming self-defense, saying he shot out of fear for his life.
Second-degree murder would send Gasser to jail for the rest of his life with no chance for parole, probation or suspended sentence. Manslaughter, which covers actions made in the heat of passion, is punishable by up to 40 years. Jurors could also find Gasser guilty of negligent homicide, which implies an unreasonable level of carelessness. That crime carries a maximum penalty of five years.
During the questioning of potential jurors Tuesday, Assistant District Attorney Shannon Swaim and defense attorney Matthew Goetz said the case would boil down to whether a jury believes the shooting was justified, as the defense claims. They questioned potential jurors generally about their attitudes about crime, self-defense, the police and race.
“It’s going to get real uncomfortable,” Swaim warned. “But I’m going to ask you because it’s my job.”
McKnight’s killing prompted outrage from leaders of the black community because the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office didn’t arrest Gasser until four days after the shooting, even though he freely admitted to pulling the trigger.
Goetz asked would-be jurors where they prioritized freedom on the list of things they cherish.
“Well, it’s God, family, then country,” one prospective female juror responded.
“So I guess it’s pretty high,” replied Goetz, who had earlier called the opening of the proceedings for Gasser “the biggest day of his life.”
Judge Ellen Shirer Kovach will ultimately explain the applicable law to the jury. While attorneys cannot discuss specific details of the case during the selection process, their questions and comments to jurors highlighted some of the areas the trial will cover.
Goetz told the men and women in the jury box that his client’s defense of justifiable homicide amounts to an additional burden of proof for the state. He made sure everyone agreed with the concept of self-defense.
Swaim told panelists that unlike some other states, Louisiana does not require that premeditation be proven for a defendant to be found guilty of murder. An intent to kill or cause great bodily harm, she told them, can be formed in an instant.
Goetz told them jurors will hear about the so-called “castle doctrine,” which allows a person in their home, car or business to use deadly force to defend themselves or drive out an intruder.
He noted that simply crossing the threshold to enter someone’s home or car legally constitutes entering, likening it to how a runner scores a touchdown in football the moment the ball touches the white line of the end zone.
Goetz also told prospective jurors that that the law only allows a prior incident involving a defendant to be admitted as evidence of motive, opportunity or intent, not to show bad character or “dirty someone up.”
This appeared to be in anticipation of the state’s expected introduction during testimony of a 2006 incident at the same intersection in which Gasser was accused, but never charged, with punching someone over a traffic incident.
Kovach ruled last year that the incident could be used by prosecutors at trial over objections by the defense.