Jury finds man guilty of manslaughter in 2016 killing of former Saints defensive end Will Smith

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A New Orleans jury deliberate for more than four hours before returning a guilty verdict early Saturday morning in the deadly shooting of former Saints defensive end Will Smith. 

Cardell Hayes was convicted of manslaughter for a second time after Smith was shot following a dispute over a vehicle crash in April 2016. Smith was driving an SUV at the time of the traffic incident. A verbal altercation began over whether Smith’s vehicle had hit Hayes’ Hummer along Magazine Street in New Orleans.

Hayes could now face up to four decades following the jury’s decision in the retrial of the nearly eight-year-old case. A jury convicted Hayes of manslaughter in December 2016 in Smith’s death and attempted manslaughter for wounding Smith’s wife, Racquel Smith. Hayes, 36, did not take the stand to testify under oath in the latest trial.

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Cardell Hayes walks into the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court for his retrial in New Orleans on Friday, January 26, 2024.  Hayes, who shot former New Orleans Saints star Will Smith following a traffic crash nearly eight years ago, has been convicted of manslaughter. (David Grunfeld/The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate via AP)

The jury vote was 10-2, at a time when Louisiana law only required 10 jurors to agree, but the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed nonunanimous verdicts. Hayes was released on bond after having served more than four years of a 25-year sentence.

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Various circumstances, including court closure during the COVID-19 pandemic, led to retrial delays. On Friday, prosecutors rested their case against Hayes, and the defense declined to call any further witnesses after that point.

Saints player Will Smith speaks to the media

Will Smith, #91 of the New Orleans Saints, speaks to members of the media during Super Bowl XLIV Media Day at Sun Life Stadium on February 2, 2010, in Miami Gardens, Florida.  (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

District Attorney Jason Williams insisted during his closing argument that Hayes had fired needlessly.

“One gun was fired by one man,” Williams said, holding in the air the evidence-tagged handgun that Hayes fired and that hit Smith eight times — seven in the back — and also hit Smith’s wife in the legs.

Meanwhile, defense attorney John Fuller insisted that prosecutors had not proven Hayes did not act in self-defense. Fuller pointed to a recording of a 911 call made soon after the shooting in which Hayes can be heard in the background claiming Smith had stated that he intended to get a gun from his car.

Defense attorneys speak to reporters

Defense attorneys Sarah Chervinksy and John Fuller speak about the jury’s decision in the Cardell Hayes retrial outside Orleans Parish Criminal District Court in New Orleans, Saturday, January 27, 2024. Hayes, who shot former New Orleans Saints star Will Smith following a traffic crash nearly eight years ago, has been convicted of manslaughter. (Sophia Germer/The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate via AP)

Fuller sought to refute prosecutors’ claims that Racquel Smith had calmed her husband down by the time Hayes opened fire.

“You don’t say, ‘Calm down, it’s not worth it’ if you don’t have to say, ‘Calm down, it’s not worth it,’” he said, referring to prosecution testimony about Racquel’s efforts to defuse the argument.

Sarah Chervinsky, one of Hayes’ other defense attorneys, said the defense team plans to file an appeal.

“We believe the correct verdict would have been ‘not guilty’ on both counts,” said Sarah Chervinsky, one of Hayes’ defense attorneys. “We intend to file an appeal, and we will continue to fight for Cardell in this case.”

Hayes is the former owner of a tow truck business. He also had a brief career as a semi-pro football player. He has one son.

Evidence showed that Will Smith had been intoxicated at the time of the confrontation. But there was no witness or forensic evidence to back up Hayes’ claim that Smith had wielded or fired a weapon.

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Smith, a father of three, was a defensive leader on the Saints team that lifted spirits in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005. He helped carry the team to a winning season in 2006 and a Super Bowl victory in 2010.

“Each time we stepped into this courthouse, we were forced to relive the worst moments of our lives,” Racquel Smith and her family said in a statement. “As hard as it was to sit and listen to autopsy reports and untruths about the night Will was killed, and I was shot, we came each day brave and strong, because we were fighting for Will. I can look my children in the eyes and tell them that I gave everything in pursuit of justice on behalf of Will.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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