Manslaughter verdict caps trial of ex-NFL player's killer

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. The convictio
AP Photo

NEW ORLEANS (AP) New Orleans' district attorney said he'll seek 60 years in prison for the man who killed New Orleans Saints star Will Smith - the maximum 40 years for manslaughter, plus another 20 years for attempted manslaughter in the wounding of Smith's wife.

''We will do our gut-level best to get the judge to impose the maximum sentence of 60 years,'' Leon Cannizzaro told reporters Monday.

Cardell Hayes was found guilty Sunday night after insisting that he only fired because the retired NFL player was drunk and violent and had grabbed a gun following their collision in traffic last April.

No one else testified Smith ever held a gun. A loaded .9-mm semi-automatic handgun was found loaded but unused inside Smith's car.

Smith, a 34-year-old father of three, was a defensive leader on the Saints team that lifted spirits in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. He helped carry the team to a winning season in 2006 and a Super Bowl victory four years later.

His death in a dispute over traffic was shocking, even for a city with a high rate of homicides.

Hayes, 29, will be sentenced on Feb. 17. State Judge Camille Buras will have the option of imposing less than the maximum sentences, and could order them served concurrently. But the D.A. said the crime warrants maximum sentences, served one after the other.

Hayes would have faced a mandatory life sentence had he been found guilty as charged of second-degree murder, and Racquel Smith will press for a harsh sentence when she gives her victim impact statement before the sentencing, according to a statement from the family.

''It's very unfortunate that another child will grow up without a father,'' said Raquel Smith's lawyer, Peter Thomson, referring to Hayes' 6-year-old son. ''But Mr. Hayes, regardless of that, must face the consequences of his actions under our system of laws.''

Friends and relatives of Hayes, a former semi-pro football player who owns a towing company, left court without commenting Sunday night.

Hayes' defense said Smith's popularity led to a rush to judgment by police and prosecutors. Assistant District Attorney Laura Rodrigue countered that the defense was trying to smear Smith.

A pathologist report showed Smith was legally drunk that night, after spending time at the city's annual French Quarter Festival, a bar and two restaurants. He was driving with his wife and another couple, who were traveling with a group of friends in several cars - when his Mercedes SUV may have lightly bumped Hayes' Hummer.

Smith then drove off, with Hayes in pursuit. Hayes vehemently denied intentionally ramming the SUV moments later - he said he was trying to dial 911 to report a hit-and-run and didn't realize how close their cars were.

The jury appeared to agree with Hayes on this point, finding him not guilty of aggravated criminal damage to property.

Cannizzaro said Monday that Smith's apparent anger and his high blood-alcohol level were likely factors in the jury's decision to hand up a lesser verdict than murder. But, he said he was satisfied with the two convictions, each reached on a 10-2 vote of the 12-member jury.

Hayes said he armed himself only after he and his own passenger were accosted by Smith and Richard Hernandez, a passenger in Smith's Mercedes.

Hayes also testified that Smith didn't notice his .45-caliber handgun until Hernandez alerted him to it. And he said he only fired after Smith went back to his car to grab his own gun.

Assistant Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Napoli repeatedly noted that no other witness said Smith was armed, and that Hayes never told investigators he saw a gun in Smith's hands that night.

''I never gave a full statement to anyone,'' Hayes responded.

Napoli said in closing arguments that Smith ''was executed'' as Hayes fired into his body, once in the side and seven times in the back.

''This young man tried his best, trying to avoid doing what he had to do,'' defense attorney John Fuller shouted during his thundering closing, which lasted more than three and a half hours.

Saints coach Sean Payton was in court for the late Sunday verdict. A host of past and present Saints players, including former safety Steve Gleason, current quarterback Drew Brees and former running back Deuce McAllister, also attended the trial.

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