It was a road-rage confrontation that cost former New Orleans Saints star Will Smith his life. Now, more than a year later, the man who pumped eight bullets into Smith is about to learn his punishment.
Cardell Hayes, 29, appeared to have caught something of a break at his December trial when a jury rejected the prosecution’s push for a second-degree murder verdict, which would have meant mandatory life in prison.
But New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said soon afterward that he believes Hayes deserves a 60-year sentence: the maximum 40 years for Smith’s death, to be followed by another 20 for attempted manslaughter in the wounding of Smith’s wife Racquel.
Wednesday’s sentencing hearing set for state District Judge Camille Buras’ courtroom is likely to echo the drama of Hayes’s trial, including testimony from Racquel Smith about the effect the shooting had on her and her three children.
“You’ll see a Cliff’s Notes version of the trial,” predicts Donald “Chick” Foret, a criminal attorney and legal analyst.
And it will likely draw a crowd, including local sports figures. Saints stars past and present – including coach Sean Payton, quarterback Drew Brees and former running back Deuce McAllister – often dropped in to the trial to show support for Smith’s friends and family.
Smith was cast during the trial not only as a football hero – part of the Saints team that lifted the stricken city’s spirits after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the one that won a Super Bowl in 2010 – but also a beloved community leader who settled in New Orleans after retirement.
Expect the defense to again characterize Hayes, a former semi-pro football player and the owner of a tow truck business, as the affable, loving father to his 6-year-old son. The defense has noted the absence of any serious criminal record and has said Hayes feared for his life when he encountered a drunken, belligerent Smith following a traffic crash on the night of April 9, 2016.
Jurors heard at trial that Hayes’s Hummer had rear-ended Smith’s Mercedes SUV that night, shortly after the SUV appeared to have tapped the rear of Hayes’s car.
Although prosecutors said Hayes deliberately rammed Smith’s vehicle, Hayes insisted he was trying to get Smith’s license number when the second crash occurred. The jury appeared to believe Hayes on this point, finding him not guilty of aggravated criminal damage to property.
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. He insisted he fired at Smith, hitting him once in the side and seven times in the back, only because he believed Smith had retrieved a gun from the SUV. He insisted on the stand that he heard a “pop” before he started shooting and that he did not shoot at Racquel Smith, who was hit in the legs.
A gun was found in Smith’s SUV – loaded but unfired. There was no other witness and no forensic evidence to back up Hayes’ claim that Smith was armed.
Prosecutors have acknowledged that the former Saint had a high blood-alcohol level after spending a day at the city’s annual French Quarter festival and the evening dining and drinking with friends. But they said he did nothing to provoke the shooting.
For all the expected emotion, legal experts say there is little chance Buras will be influenced by either side. She presided over the trial and is familiar with all the issues raised in pre-hearing motions and a pre-sentence report she ordered.
“She’s well aware of the facts of the case,” said attorney and Loyola University law professor Dane Ciolino. “There’s not going to be a whole lot that can be said.”
Ciolino said Buras likely will have a sentence in mind when she enters the courtroom.
Foret agrees. “Most judges have their minds made up when they take the bench the morning of sentencing,” he said. “I would be very surprised if either the state or the defense will present any information to Judge Buras that will significantly change the sentence that she is prepared to impose.”