Man convicted of killing Saints' Will Smith to get new trial

Dan Wetzel
·Columnist
·5-min read

Nearly four years after being convicted of manslaughter in the death of former New Orleans Saints star Will Smith, Cardell Hayes will get a new trial, Louisiana’s attorney general acknowledged in a Supreme Court petition this week.

The development stems from a recent United States Supreme Court decision that determined Louisiana and Oregon’s so-called “split decision convictions” were unconstitutional. In Louisiana, a jury needed only to vote 10-2, not unanimously like elsewhere, to find a defendant guilty of a crime.

The origins of the law dated to 1898. Critics contended that it was a way to mitigate the presence of one or two Black jurors on a panel, allowing white jurors to still determine guilt or innocence. Legally, the idea that as many as two jurors are opposed to conviction undermines the standard of “beyond reasonable doubt.”

FILE- In this Dec. 7, 2016, file photo, Racquel Smith, widow of former NFL New Orleans Saints football player Will Smith, arrives with family and friends at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, for the trial of Cardell Hayes in New Orleans. Hayes was convicted of manslaughter Sunday, Dec. 11, in the fatal shooting of Will Smith. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)
In this Dec. 7, 2016, file photo, Racquel Smith, widow of former New Orleans Saints player Will Smith, arrives with family and friends at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, for the trial of Cardell Hayes in New Orleans. Hayes was convicted of manslaughter. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

In December 2016, an Orleans Parish jury voted 10-2 to convict Hayes of manslaughter in the death of Smith and attempted manslaughter in the shooting of Smith’s then wife, Racquel. Hayes, now 33, had appealed the verdict but now he will get an entirely new trial.

“In light of this Court’s [decision], the State conceded that the Court should grant certiorari, vacate the lower court judgment, and remand for further proceedings,” attorney general Jeff Landry wrote to the Supreme Court. Outgoing Orleans Parish district attorney Leon Cannizzaro, whose office prosecuted Hayes, cosigned the petition.

Hayes is among, what Nola.com reports, at least 1,300 currently incarcerated people the Supreme Court ruling impacts.

Road rage in New Orleans turns fatal

Smith was killed on April 9, 2016, following an altercation between the Saints great and Hayes, a then 28-year-old tow truck driver and semi-pro football player. The death rattled New Orleans, where Smith was a beloved defensive lineman on the Saints’ 2010 Super Bowl championship team that helped lift spirits after Hurricane Katrina.

Following a day of partying at the annual French Quarter Festival, Smith was drunk driving (his blood alcohol level was .23) when he bumped his Mercedes into the back of Hayes’ Hummer 2 truck.

Hayes, who was sober and had spent the evening at a quiet party where Pictionary was played, testified that he expected Smith to stop, check for any possible vehicle damage and exchange information. Instead, Smith pulled around Hayes and left the scene. Hayes followed and wound up rear-ending Smith’s car a few blocks later. A commotion and near fight ensued between the passengers in each car. Hayes testified that he thought Smith was returning to his own car to get a gun, and fearing for his life, Hayes unloaded his Ruger SR45 handgun first.

He wound up shooting Smith eight times, including seven in the back, and Racquel Smith once in each leg. His defense centered on the behavior of the Smiths and Louisiana’s so-called “Stand Your Ground” law that allows for self-defense.

The six-day trial in December 2016 gripped the city. High-profile former and current Saints, including Deuce McAllister, Drew Brees, Steve Gleason and Sean Payton either testified or attended the trial and packed Smith’s side of the court.

The gallery behind Hayes was equally full with supporters who knew the 6-foot-6, 300-pound Hayes, who was actually bigger than the former NFL great, as more of a gentle giant than a hardened killer. Indeed, after the shooting, he is heard on tape crying in frustration while pulling the magazine of the gun out and waiting for police to arrive. When they did, he raised his hands and identified himself as the shooter.

“No, I [didn’t] want to kill Will Smith,” Hayes testified during the trial. “I didn’t want to kill anybody.”

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 conviction ended a week-long trial in which the defendant insisted he only fired because the popular football star was drunk, violent and had grabbed a gun following a traffic crash on the night of April 9. (Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office via AP, File)
This April 10, 2016, file photo provided by the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office shows Cardell Hayes. Hayes was convicted of manslaughter on Dec. 11, in the fatal shooting of retired New Orleans Saints defensive leader Will Smith. (Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office via AP, File)

What’s next for Cardell Hayes?

Meanwhile, the plague of senseless gun violence that has long impacted New Orleans hung over everything. Smith left behind three children; Hayes has one. So, too, did the city’s class division, where supporters of the blue-collar Hayes saw him as a victim of illegal and out of control partying and entitlement by the rich and famous Saint.

In the end, the jury of eight women and four men voted 10-2 to convict Hayes of manslaughter, although they rejected the stronger charge of second-degree murder that prosecutors sought and would have carried a life sentence.

There were five Black people on the jury, but both of the not guilty votes came from white jurors, according to reporting by the Advocate newspaper.

The verdict inside a tense courtroom happened late on a Sunday night in a special court session. Payton arrived directly from the Saints’ team flight back from a game against Tampa Bay.

What happens next for the case isn’t certain.

Any decision to retry Hayes would come from a new district attorney, an election that is headed to a runoff. As with the first trial, the manslaughter case won’t be an easy one to win. The attempted manslaughter of Racquel Smith, who required months of surgery and rehab for her injuries, might be more likely. Prosecutors noted that she never posed any threat to Hayes and was out of the car only to break up the fight.

Hayes has already served more than four and a half years in prison. He was held in jail without bail before the first trial so it is unknown if he may get out while awaiting a second trial. A plea deal may work out best for everyone.

Hayes’ attorney, John Fuller, declined comment on the case. A message left for Racquel Smith was not returned.

Right now, an ugly, horrible night in New Orleans that the city thought it had left behind could be returning to the spotlight.

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