NEW ORLEANS – Cardell Hayes was found guilty Sunday of manslaughter in the April shooting death of former New Orleans Saints star Will Smith.
After a near weeklong trial, a 12-person jury rejected Hayes’ claim of self-defense. The 29-year-old tow truck driver and former semi-pro football player faces 20-40 years in prison.
Hayes never denied shooting and killing Smith after a series of traffic accidents on April 9. His defense centered on him fearing for his safety after Smith and two members of his party swarmed Hayes and a friend.
Witnesses described a mostly verbal altercation and a lot of chaos, but Hayes alleged he was punched four or five times by Smith, heard Smith say he was returning to his car to get a gun and then later saw Smith holding a gun in his hand.
Hayes said it was then that he opened fire with a Ruger SR45, hitting Smith once in the side and then seven times in the back. Also hit was Smith’s wife, Racquel, who had a bullet rip through both legs. She had been trying to separate the men and calm the situation.
Hayes, who will be sentenced in February, was also found guilty of attempted manslaughter for the shooting of Racquel Smith.
The jury rejected Hayes’ version of events, many of which weren’t corroborated by physical evidence or other witnesses.
Smith, 34 at the time of his death, was a beloved former Saints defensive lineman and team captain. He was on the New Orleans team credited with helping lift the region’s spirits after Hurricane Katrina, as well as a game-changer on the team that won the Super Bowl in 2010.
After retiring, Smith and his family remained in the region and focused on charity work and community service. The six-day trial saw a parade of current and former Saints come to Orleans Parish Criminal District Court to support the Smith family. That included coach Sean Payton and players such as Drew Brees and former Saints Deuce McAllister and Steve Gleason.
Payton was in attendance for Sunday night’s verdict, making the trip from Tampa after the Saints’ game against the Buccaneers.
The verdict comes as the city is dealing with a rash of senseless gun-related deaths. There was a shooting on Bourbon Street during Thanksgiving weekend over a dispute that left one dead and nine wounded. Monday, a memorial service will be held for Joe McKnight, a local football hero and former NFL running back who was also shot and killed after a traffic incident.
Prosecutors harped on this during closing arguments, with assistant district attorney Laura Rodrigue asking the jury to send a message that this kind of behavior isn’t acceptable in New Orleans.