The man who admitted to killing former Saint Will Smith was found guilty of manslaughter Sunday by a New Orleans jury. Cardell Hayes, a tow truck operator and a native of that city, was also found guilty of attempted manslaughter for shooting Smith’s wife, Racquel, in the legs in the same incident.
Prosecutors had sought a second-degree murder conviction for Hayes, which would have brought a life sentence, but instead the 29-year-old will spend between 20 and 40 years in prison for manslaughter. Sentencing is set for Feb. 17.
Smith, a defensive end who played for the Saints from 2004 to 2012 and helped the team win its only Super Bowl, was fatally shot in a road-rage incident in April. His car had initially made contact with Hayes’s in a New Orleans neighborhood, and Hayes returned the favor a few blocks later, then ended a confrontation by shooting Smith eight times, seven in the back.
Hayes and his attorneys had argued in the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court trial that he fired his gun in self-defense, claiming that Smith, 34, was reaching for a gun he kept in his car. Prosecutors said Smith went to his car to retrieve his weapon only after getting shot and died in his vehicle before he could get his hands on it.
“I knew for a fact that I was going to get shot,” Hayes told the jury Saturday (via the Associated Press), but he was the only witness to claim that Smith brandished a weapon. In emotional testimony on Tuesday, Racquel Smith said to Hayes, “I didn’t do you anything for you to shoot me.”
“I don’t want sympathy,” Smith had said while on the stand. “I want justice for my husband. He is not here today, and I am his voice.”
Smith, who burst into tears when the verdict was announced, offered no comment other than a statement in which she thanked prosecutors and said that “Will’s dedication to his family, his love for his community and his desire to live life to the fullest will continue to inspire Racquel, Will Jr., Lisa, Wynter and everyone else who loved him.” The statement indicated that she plans to make a victim impact statement at sentencing.
Saints Coach Sean Payton, who had attended the trial last week and whose team lost at Tampa Bay earlier Sunday, went straight from the airport to the New Orleans courthouse for the verdict, and he shook hands with former players Pierre Thomas, who was with the Smiths at the time of the shooting and testified last week, and Deuce McAllister.
“It’s not a win for anybody. It was a tough situation,” said McAllister, who was close to Smith. “There was no way either side could win.”
Assistant New Orleans District Attorney Christopher Bowman said in a statement that his office was “gratified” by the verdict. The city’s district attorney, Bowman said, “believes it was victory for the Smith family as well as the citizens of New Orleans.”
An attorney for Hayes, John Fuller, spent over three hours making his closing argument Sunday to the jury. “We are going to regroup [Monday] and see what the next approach is,” Hayes said after the verdict was read.
Hayes was acquitted of a charge of criminal damage. The jury, which deliberated for almost six hours, voted 10-2 in favor of manslaughter.