The man who killed former Saints defensive lineman Will Smith in April 2016 was sentenced Friday to 25 years in prison for manslaughter. Cardell Hayes could have received up to 60 years, and Smith’s family, as well as prosecutors, expressed disappointment in the decision.
A jury had found Hayes, 29, guilty of manslaughter in December, and on Wednesday, Judge Camille Buras rejected his defense team’s attempt to force a retrial by producing a new witness. That witness, who claimed to live near the scene of Smith’s killing in New Orleans and to have heard two guns go off, was described as “certifiably insane” by the assistant district attorney who cross-examined him.
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. His car had initially made contact with Hayes’s vehicle, 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.
Smith’s wife, Racquel, was also shot in the leg during the incident, and she said in a statement Friday (via nola.com) that she was “extremely disappointed with today’s sentencing and the leniency showed by Judge Buras.” She added, “While we know nothing will ever bring Will back, we were hopeful that Judge Buras would have issued a stronger sentence to more justly reflect both the nature of the crimes and the tremendous loss and pain that my family has suffered as a result of Mr. Hayes’ violent actions.”
“Both the district attorney and the Smith family are disappointed in the length of the sentence,” said assistant district attorney Christopher Bowman.
“I think that Judge Buras took everything into account,” an attorney for Hayes, John Fuller, said. “The loss to the Smith family, the loss of income, the loss of a father. I think she also took into account Cardell’s background. And that was the decision she arrived at, and we’re going to live with it.”
In addition to the 25-year manslaughter sentence, with no possibility of parole, Buras sentenced Hayes to 15 years for attempted manslaughter in the shooting of Smith’s wife. Those terms will be served concurrently, rather than consecutively, and Hayes will receive credit for the time he has already spent in prison.
“Everything that happened that night, I wish it had never happened,” Hayes told Racquel Smith in court this week. “I wish we’d never encountered that situation. The result is Will not being there for his kids, for his family. I know you’re saying I’m still here for my kid, but I’m really not here for mine, either.”
Saints Coach Sean Payton also appeared in court to testify about the impact of the loss of Smith, who was highly regarded in the New Orleans community. “Man, he was special,” Payton said with emotion. “Like rare. Not as a player but as a man, a player and a teammate.”