Key developments from the first week of the Will Smith murder trial
- The murder trial of Cardell Hayes in the death of former Saints star Will Smith is progressing more quickly than expected, and all of New Orleans is watching. Here's what we learned from the first week.
The first five days of the murder trial of New Orleans semipro football player Cardell Hayes for the death of former Saints defensive end Will Smith have featured several key developments.
As detailed in our SI trial preview, Hayes, 29, is accused of using a .45 caliber Ruger handgun to shoot Smith eight times following an argument between the two men and others on April 9, 2016. The confrontation stemmed from two traffic incidents involving vehicles driven by Hayes and Smith, the latter of whom was intoxicated. Hayes is also accused of shooting Smith’s wife, Racquel Smith, once in each leg as she was next to her husband. The most serious charge Hayes faces is second-degree murder, a conviction for which would send him to prison for life with no chance for parole.
Hayes’s main defense is that Louisiana’s “stand-your-ground” law permitted him to use deadly force against Smith. Hayes’s attorneys have portrayed Smith and those with Smith as furious over the traffic incidents and as threatening the lives of Hayes and his passenger, Kevin O’Neal. There are conflicting accounts about whether Smith was reaching for a loaded gun in his car at the time Hayes shot him.
Here are several key developments from the first week of trial, with Judge Camille Buras of the Orleans Parish Criminal Court presiding:
• A 12-person jury was selected from a pool of about 120 prospective jurors. The jury consists of eight women and four men, with two women and two men selected as alternates. According to Louisiana law, 10 of the 12 need to be in agreement to reach a verdict. Judge Buras ordered that the jurors and the alternates be sequestered, which means that they must stay at a local hotel and be under constant monitoring by sheriff deputies. All 16 have been prohibited from using social media, watching TV, hearing any commentary about the trial or having unmonitored phone conversations with friends and family. If any of the jurors breaks the rules of the sequester, Judge Buras will dismiss him or her on grounds of misconduct.
• Jurors were instantly reminded of Smith’s life as a New Orleans Saint when a number of Smith’s former teammates attended the trial in support of their fallen friend. Deuce McAllister, Drew Brees, Steve Gleason (who is suffering from ALS), Roman Harper and Jahri Evans all attended the trial as members of the public. While their presence has no technical bearing on the legal issues in the case, Hayes’s attorneys are surely worried that jurors might feel extra sympathy for Smith—and accompanying disdain for Hayes—the more they think about Smith’s past heroics for the local team. After all, Smith made the Pro Bowl in 2006 and helped the Saints win Super Bowl XLIV in February 2010. Smith’s teammates, who are almost certainly recognizable to the jurors, taking the time to be in court only heightens the concern for Hayes’s attorneys about how jurors could be influenced by Smith’s celebrity.
• Racquel Smith has made a vivid impression during the first days of a trial that has been moving far faster than expected. Her presence could go a long way in convincing jurors to convict Hayes. On Tuesday, Racquel Smith testified and characterized Hayes—the man who shot and killed her husband—as a murderer who sadistically celebrated his killing. She recalls the incident as one in which a verbal argument ensued and then, suddenly and without apparent provocation, gunshots were fired. She said she remembers hearing a man (presumably Hayes) boastfully declare, “You want to show off for the f---ing white boy? Now look at you! Look at you now!” While jurors realize that Racquel Smith is hardly a neutral observer of events, her testimony was specific, which helps her account ring true. Smith also attracted notice in court on Friday when Dr. Samantha Huber, a pathologist, described the autopsy of Will Smith and the nature of the injuries he suffered from the bullets. During Huber’s testimony, Racquel Smith was reportedly “sobbing audibly” and had to leave the courtroom.
• Hayes’s attorney, John Fuller, has raised questions about the thoroughness of the murder investigation. He has implied that the New Orleans Police Department ignored evidence that undermined its quick assessment of Hayes as a murderer and not as a man who exercised lawful self-defense. For example, Fuller used the testimonies of bystander Justin Ross, who took a video of the crime scene, and that of New Orleans Police Det. Bruce Brueggeman—the lead investigator—to show that other NOPD officers declined to show Ross’s video to Brueggeman. Brueggeman also admitted that no traffic report was completed for the first of the two road incidents involving Hayes and Smith. While these points may not seem crucial, the more jurors believe the police rushed to blame Hayes, the more likely they will question the charges against him.
• Jurors heard an eyewitness, Stephen Cacioppo, describe Richard Hernandez—a neighbor of Smith’s and a passenger in Smith’s SUV—as a shirtless, enraged man who charged at Hayes and O’Neal. This testimony is important for the defense, as they want jurors to believe that Hayes felt genuinely concerned about his safety. If jurors conclude that a group of angry and intoxicated men charged at Hayes’s car, Hayes’s use of a firearm as a form of defense might seem more understandable. Cacioppo is also significant in that he has no connection to either Hayes or Smith. He watched the incident from a window in his home. Jurors are thus likely to regard Cacioppo’s testimony as objective and less susceptible to bias in favor of either Hayes or Smith.
• Another eyewitness, Rebecca Dooley (wife of Richard Hernandez), who was also in the Mercedes, painted a damning account of Hayes. Dooley recalled Hayes as “walking toward [Will Smith] with the gun pointed at him” and then firing. Further, in testimony that corroborated that of Racquel Smith, Dooley remembers Hayes taunting Will Smith’s dead body. In short, Dooley depicted Hayes as a violent man with evil intentions. Jurors, however, might question if Dooley is biased, as she is friends with Racquel Smith and was a passenger in the Smiths’ SUV. Additionally, when police originally interviewed Dooley, she neglected to mention that her husband was involved and had fled the scene in a cab.
• Hayes’s passenger, Kevin O’Neal, also offered key testimony. While he acknowledged that only Hayes had exited a car with a firearm in hand, O’Neal strongly blamed Smith for his own death. O’Neal recalled Smith as “attacking” Hayes and presenting a grave threat to both Hayes and O’Neal. O’Neal also highlighted how Rodriguez, one of Smith’s passengers, moved menacingly toward Hayes and O’Neal. Jurors, of course, know that O’Neal is a friend of Hayes and thus he may be inclined to offer a favorable portrayal of Hayes. Still, O’Neal was with Hayes the entire time and thus has a unique perspective on what took place.
• Fuller also wants jurors to question the role played by retired New Orleans Police Department captain Billy Ceravolo, who had dined with the Smiths on the evening of the shooting. The defense believes it is possible that Ceravolo tampered with crime scene evidence, perhaps to give the appearance that Will Smith was not reaching for a gun in his car when, in fact, he may have been doing just that. Ceravolo testified on Friday and categorically rejected any insinuation that he altered the crime scene.
Moving forward, it remains to be seen if Hayes will testify in his own defense. He cannot be called to the stand, and defense attorneys typically recommend that defendants waive their right to testify. If Hayes testifies, he would be subjected to demanding questioning by assistant district attorneys Jason Napoli and Laura Rodrigue. These prosecutors would use their cross-examination of Hayes to portray him as a violent man who fired a gun for no good reason and then callously celebrated his killing. How well Hayes could respond to such questioning is a crucial assessment for Hayes’ attorneys. Given that the first week of trial went relatively well for the prosecution, Hayes’s attorneys may be inclined to give Hayes a shot on the stand.
Michael McCann is SI's legal analyst. He is also an attorney and a tenured law professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.
Richard O’Brien, who authored the SI Longform The Saint v. “The Thug” on the death of Will Smith, contributed to this story.