Supreme Court vacates conviction of man who shot and killed former Saint Will Smith

Supporters of Cardell Hayes stand outside a New Orleans courthouse during his 2016 trial in the killing of former Saint Will Smith. (AP)
Supporters of Cardell Hayes stand outside a New Orleans courthouse during his 2016 trial in the killing of former Saint Will Smith. (AP)

She was laying down on a wooden bench, at the end of a grand, marble hallway inside the Orleans Parish Courthouse. The mood outside Courtroom 8 was already tense, as it tends to be when a jury has a murder case, when the fates of one defendant and two families and, in this case, two communities that share the same city, hang in the balance.

It was late on a Sunday night, a week-long trial running into unusual hours. Family, friends, lawyers and observers tried to pass the time with hushed conversations and small talk. Each second seemingly more strained than the one before.

How much longer? And what, if anything, did every passing tick of the clock mean for the verdict?

And so there she lay, a bit out of sight, but certainly not ear shot. She wailed. She cried. She moaned. A family member would rub her back sometimes, but there is little consoling possible when hell has come to earth.

She was the mother of the defendant, Cardell Hayes, who had been tried for shooting and killing former New Orleans Saints star Will Smith after a series of traffic altercations eight months prior.

A 12-person jury would decide her son’s future, his son’s future, her family’s future. Hayes, a then 29-year-old father who worked as a tow truck driver and carried a quiet personality that belied his hulking frame, could walk out the door or wind up with life in prison.

To feel her pain was not to dishonor the pain of Smith’s family, who had no hopes of seeing their husband/father/son again. Smith's mother was dealing with her own unspeakable trauma. Will was gone, taken from his people in a hail of bullets on a New Orleans street.

This was no simple case though. Whatever verdict was coming was uncertain.

The two men met because Smith, drunk driving after a day of French Quarter partying, first lightly rear-ended Hayes’ truck. Hayes, sober and having spent an innocent night playing Pictionary and board games at a friend’s house, pulled to the side of the road to assess damage and perhaps exchange information. Instead Smith drove off. Hayes followed before crashing into Smith’s car.

Chaos ensued. Shouting. Pushing between members of each other’s parties. A confrontation between Smith and Hayes, both big, burly men who loved football — one a Sainted Saint who helped deliver a post-Katrina Super Bowl, the other a local, but popular, high school and semi-pro player.

Smith retreated to his car. Hayes said he heard Smith say he was getting a gun. Hayes pulled his first and it started going off, eight bullets hitting Smith’s side and back, another two hitting the legs of Smith’s wife, Racquel, who was trying to play peacemaker.

FILE - This April 10, 2016, file photo provided by the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office shows Cardell Hayes. Hayes was convicted of manslaughter Sunday, Dec. 11, in the fatal shooting of retired New Orleans Saints defensive leader Will Smith. A Louisiana appellate court is set to hear the case of Cardell Hayes, the man convicted of manslaughter for fatally shooting retired New Orleans Saints star Will Smith. In the appeal, Hayes’s attorneys say the judge in the case should have granted a new trial because a witness who contacted the defense a day after Hayes' conviction said he had heard two guns at the time of the shooting. (Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office via AP, File)
In 2016, Cardell Hayes was convicted of manslaughter in the fatal shooting of retired New Orleans Saints defensive leader Will Smith. Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the decision. (Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office)

Hayes never denied shooting Will Smith (although at trial he told a fantastical and non-believable story that he somehow didn’t shoot Raquel). After the incident, he pulled the magazine out of his Ruger SR45, laid everything on the hood of his truck and waited for the police. When they arrived, he held his hands aloft and identified himself as the shooter.

He killed a man, but was he a murderer? He certainly wasn’t looking for trouble that night; he was just another guy with a gun driving around New Orleans when trouble found him and everything escalated.

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

Did he deserve a second-degree murder conviction? How about the lesser charge of manslaughter? Or was he a justified man standing his ground, defending himself as he feared for his life, as Louisiana law allows?

Amid all the heartache and regret, 12 jurors would announce their decision. Ten would vote to convict Hayes for manslaughter, a compromise verdict that didn't appease anyone. Two voted not guilty. The division of the jury was plain to see — at least one juror was in visible disagreement as the verdict was read.

In Louisiana, a non-unanimous verdict was enough to send Hayes off for 25 years. The law dated back to 1898. Critics contend that old law was built on racism, designed to mitigate the presence of one or two Black jurors on a panel, and thus allow the remaining white people to determine guilt or innocence.

In this case, while the jury had five Blacks on it, it was two white jurors who voted to acquit, according to later reporting by the Advocate newspaper.

For the Hayes family, the races didn’t matter. This was an old law reaching into modern times to strip them of what they believed was the definition of reasonable doubt — literally two of the 12 people doubted the decision.

It didn’t matter. Hayes was off to prison for a long, long time.

Yet in 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled that “split-decision convictions,” which had been allowed in Louisiana (voters have since repealed the law) and Oregon, were unconstitutional. Hayes’ defense team quickly appealed the verdict. On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, vacating the conviction.

The case was returned to U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans. A new trial is expected, at least if a new prosecutor in Orleans Parish decides to try it. Hayes has been locked up since the night of the shooting, or nearly five years.

The emotion, the hurt, the agony is no different now than when it all first went down. Not for the Smith family. Not for the Hayeses. Not, perhaps, even for New Orleans itself.

The incident and ensuing trial laid the city bare, showed its divisions, showed its wealth-disparity, showed its privilege and its pain, showed its problems with violence and guns and bloodshed, showed its dueling worlds of partying and poverty, showed its senselessness, showed its innocent victims, showed its children growing up without their father, lost either to a grave or a prison cell.

“Losing a man and a young man going to jail, in that sense, it’s a loss for everybody,” Deuce McAllister, Smith’s friend and Saints teammate, said solemnly on the night of the verdict. There was no joy at the decision then. There was hardly any relief.

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

Nothing is ever quite as it seems in New Orleans and this case may have epitomized that to its fullest. This wasn’t a clear-cut, black-and-white story. It was a kaleidoscope of colors and emotions, all sides still debating exactly what was what and what it all meant.

For over a century, 10-2 was enough in Louisiana, enough to send a man away and dismiss the doubts of the few as not reasonable. Not anymore, though. Cardell Hayes is no longer a convict. At least for now.

What’s left though is no easier to confront or comfort than the wailing cries of a despondent mother hanging on a verdict, because the wait and the confusion just goes on.

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