Will Smith trial: A guilty verdict tells only part of a tragic story

Dan Wetzel
·Columnist
Supporters of Cardell Hayes leave the courthouse Sunday night. (AP)
Supporters of Cardell Hayes leave the courthouse Sunday night after a jury found him guilty of manslaughter. (AP)

NEW ORLEANS — In one corner of Courtroom 8, a mother wept. In another, another. This was hell on earth, 10:43 on a Sunday night, a verdict just read, a compromise decision that would please no one in a case that knows only heartache and regret.

Cardell Hayes was found guilty of manslaughter in the killing of ex-New Orleans Saints star Will Smith after a series of minor traffic accidents and a street argument in April. The 29-year-old Hayes faces between 20-40 years in prison. He was also convicted of attempted manslaughter in the shooting of Smith’s wife, Racquel, which is worth up to 20 years. Expect Judge Camille Buras to hand down 40 years total at sentencing early next year.

The jury voted 10-2 (the minimum needed) on each count after over five hours of deliberation in a special Sunday session of court.

The extended prison time left Hayes’ mother overwhelmed in the galley, sobbing and sliding down in her seat. “Do you need a drink?” Cardell Hayes asked, with a son’s concern, from the defense table. “Do you need a drink?” By then he was already cuffed and unable to get her one, unable to provide comfort or care. By then he was just an inmate.

A little over a decade ago Hayes’ father was shot nine times and killed by New Orleans police after he wouldn’t drop a knife. The family won a settlement over the killing. Now Hayes’ mother was watching her son go away due to the opposite end of gun violence.

The fact that the jury didn’t return the maximum punishment prosecutors sought – life without parole courtesy of a second-degree murder charge – left Smith’s widow crying herself. This wasn’t the full measure of justice Racquel Smith wanted for a man who pulled out his Ruger SR45 and shot her husband in the side before pumping seven more in his back. He also put one through both of her legs.

There were no winners here Sunday, just as there were none on that night eight months ago, and that brought the tears, too.

For Racquel Smith, whether it was life without parole, whether it is 40 years, whether it is however long Cardell Hayes will get shipped to Angola, it was never bringing back her husband, never giving daddy back to her three children.

And for the Hayes’ family, yes, there is hope that one day Cardell comes home, but four decades feels like forever. His 6-year-old son, C.J., will grow up effectively fatherless.

“Losing a man and a young man going to jail, in that sense, it’s a loss for everybody,” Deuce McAllister, the Saints great and Smith’s friend, said solemnly afterward.

*****

New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson views the casket of Will Smith during a viewing in April. (AP)
New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson views the casket of Will Smith during a viewing in April. (AP)

They could have been friends. Maybe they should have been friends. They were two men, two fathers, two former football players, more alike than they knew.

Maybe they could have bonded over the game they both played, Smith for the Saints, Hayes in college and semi-pro leagues around Louisiana. They were both big guys, defensive linemen. Hayes, 29, used to watch and root for Smith, 34, and then attempt to copy some of his pass rush techniques in his own games.

Maybe they could have worked together. They both volunteered in the New Orleans community. Both coached their kid’s teams. Both mentored young men from other families. Maybe Hayes’ son, C.J., and Smith’s youngest, Wynter, could have been teammates. Maybe Hayes and Smith could have just chilled at the barbershops and clubs in New Orleans that each routinely frequented, sampling the laid-back vibe that each loved about this city.

Instead they met late one night on a dark Lower Garden District street, met after a second traffic accident, met in anger and uncertainty and, in Smith’s case, drunkenness.

There was no time to talk, just shout and argue and size each other up. Neither comported himself well that night.

Smith left the scene after bumping his Mercedes into Hayes’ Hummer 2, perhaps to avoid a DUI charge (his blood alcohol level was .23). Hayes chased after him, losing control and rear-ending Smith’s Mercedes. (Hayes was unanimously acquitted on a charge that the accident was on purpose). Smith charged out of the vehicle, joined by two other men. There was screaming and, in at least one case, a punch thrown, all because of a fender bender.

It ended when Hayes unloaded those .45 caliber bullets, tragically and forever changing the lives of both men and their families and perhaps even the city they called home.

*****

A makeshift memorial was erected near the spot where former New Orleans Saints defensive end Will Smith was shot and killed. (AP)
A makeshift memorial was erected near the spot where former New Orleans Saints defensive end Will Smith was shot and killed. (AP)

The trial gripped New Orleans for myriad reasons. There was Smith’s fame; he starred on the Saints’ teams credited with lifting spirits after Hurricane Katrina and winning the franchise’s only Super Bowl. This trial saw a parade of high-profile current and former Saints arrive to offer support. (Hayes’ side of the courtroom was packed as well). There was the who-done-it aspect of the case – Hayes claimed self-defense under Louisiana’s “stand your ground law,” saying he feared for his life because he believed Smith had a gun in his hand and was about to shoot him (no evidence of that scenario was found).

And there was the senseless street violence part, a plague that won’t seem to abate here. On Monday, a memorial service is scheduled for another football star, local hero and former NFLer Joe McKnight, who was shot and killed recently after a seemingly minor car incident. And police are still sorting out all the details from a Thanksgiving weekend dispute over an ex-girlfriend that saw a 20-year-old man shoot up Bourbon Street, killing one and injuring nine others. None of it is logical.

No, there are no winners here, not when none of this needed to happen. The courthouse was a cauldron of sadness on Sunday, as a stressed jury worked through the case. Hayes’ mother had spent much of her time waiting out the verdict nearly slumped over on a bench outside the courtroom, the despair ripping her apart from within.

Hayes was guilty of his crime. The evidence and testimony said as much. He very easily could’ve been found guilty of second-degree murder, but in a nod to the complexity of the story, the jury went for a lesser conviction.

He had killed but he didn’t seem like a killer. That’s the worst thing about it. He stands a burly 6-feet-6, but there is a gentle way about him. He’d never been convicted of a violent crime. This incident didn’t stem from gang activity or a criminal act. After the shooting, he can be heard on the 911 tape repeatedly punching the hood of his truck and shouting a profanity in frustration. He has consistently cried in frustration and fear over what happened.

“No I [didn’t] want to kill Will Smith,” Hayes testified on Saturday. “I didn’t want to kill anybody.”

When police arrived they found Hayes waiting for them, his gun magazine pulled out, laying out in the clear as he held his hands up and identified himself.

“I’m the shooter, I’m the shooter.”

He had spent that day playing with his son before selling a man one of the puppies he breeds. He got some lines put in his hair at his favorite barbershop and joked around with the guys. He attended a birthday party that was so innocent it featured board games such as Heads Up! and Pictionary. He didn’t drink. He was in the car at around 11 p.m.only because he was giving his best friend a ride back to the barbershop before he headed in.

It doesn’t excuse what happened. It doesn’t change what he did. But on the night Cardell Hayes killed a man, he wasn’t looking to do much of anything. A three- or four-minute spurt of life changed everything – a bump, a chase, a crash, an argument, a volley of bullets. Fate found him. Chaos surrounded him. The presence of a gun he wasn’t mentally or tactically trained to handle failed him.

“What if Cardell took a different way home?” his attorney, John Fuller, asked during closing arguments. “What if Cardell stayed at the party a little longer?”

That’s the thing. What if? What turned a mild-mannered guy at the end of a routine night like that?

And it works the other way, too. What if Smith wasn’t drunk that night, a fact that likely affected his driving, demeanor and decision-making? What if Smith hadn’t been hanging out with Richard Hernandez, a clown of a character who was riding shotgun and acted recklessly and ridiculously after the accident, looking for a fight before fleeing in a taxi? What if Smith sooner had heeded his wife’s pleas to back away?

Smith wasn’t just famous for football, but for the work he put into the city – time and effort and money. He grew up in New York, went to college in Ohio but found home here. He loved the place, loved the people. He married a Louisiana girl and even as she talked about moving out, he said no. This is where he would put roots down in the community. This was where he would raise his family, two boys and a girl he loved and adored. Family was everything to him. So was the simple stuff that belied the big contract and recognizable fame.

He’d spent his day with Racquel at French Quarter Fest and then dinner and drinks with other couples, old friends and old teammates. And then it was gone.

What if? What if? What if?

“We’d both be with our families,” Hayes testified through tears on Saturday, noting that at any point, one different choice would have changed everything.

“I wish the night never happened,” Hayes added later.

One act led to another, one domino knocked over the next. Full of fear, or panic, or pride or all of the above, Cardell Hayes pulled out a gun and opened fire. He committed the crime. He wasn’t under direct threat. The evidence did him in.

Yet the jury saw a person there, saw a story that wasn’t as cut and dried as many homicides. They didn’t see a thug who deserved to rot forever. They felt the regret. They gave him a distant hope.

“Unfortunately, it happens all too often in this city,” prosecutor Laura Rodrigue said in her closing argument. “Senseless stupidity in the streets.”

Senseless and stupid. Stupid and senseless.

No winners here in New Orleans, just broken hearts and sobbing mothers and fatherless kids and decades to wonder how it all so quickly broke so bad, a cocktail of ego and guns and alcohol forming a snowball that kept rolling and rolling … right into hell on earth inside a courthouse on a Sunday night.