NEW ORLEANS – Jury deliberations began Sunday evening in the case of a man charged with second-degree murder for fatally shooting retired New Orleans Saints star Will Smith after an April 9 car crash.
Cardell Hayes, 29, took the stand a day earlier to tell jurors he only fired after Smith pulled a gun from his damaged SUV following that crash -- and only after hearing what he thought was a gunshot as Smith and another man berated him after the crash.
But, during the week-long trial, Hayes was the only witness to say Smith handled a gun that night.
Prosecutors said he was lying and that ballistics tests indicated that the only gun fired was fired by Hayes.
State district Judge Camille Buras told jurors they could find Hayes not guilty, guilty as charged or guilty of the lesser crimes of manslaughter or negligent homicide. The second-degree murder charge carries a mandatory life sentence.
Hayes also was charged with attempted second-degree murder for the wounding of Smith's wife, Racquel, and aggravated criminal damage to property for allegedly ramming Smith's SUV in the run-up to the shooting.
Jurors left the courtroom to begin discussing the case just before 5 p.m. CST, after hearing close to six hours of closing arguments --from prosecutors who said Smith was "executed" and from a defense attorney who said police and prosecutors rushed to judgment.
Defense lawyer John Fuller warned jurors not to be "star-struck" by the array of past and present New Orleans Saints stars who visited the weeklong trial to show support for Smith's family.
"This young man tried his best, trying to avoid doing what he had to do," Fuller shouted during a thundering closing argument that lasted more than three and a half hours.
Prosecutors said Racqel Hayes was hit by a gunshot that tore into her leg after she had calmed her angry husband down at the crash scene.
"She then listened as the love of her life, the father of her children, was executed," Assistant District Attorney Jason Napoli said in closing arguments, noting that Hayes fired into Smith's body eight times, once in the side, seven in the back.
Saints coach Sean Payton, quarterback Drew Brees, and former running back Deuce McAllister were among those who attended parts of the weeklong trial. Former Saints safety Steve Gleason, battling Lou Gehrig's disease, watched closing arguments Sunday from his wheelchair in the courtroom's middle aisle.
Napoli dismissed defense claims that a drunken Smith was the aggressor and that Hayes was defending himself in accordance with Louisiana's "stand your ground" law. That law doesn't apply, Napoli said, because Hayes was the aggressor and was engaged in a criminal act, having armed himself after he purposely rammed his Hummer into Smith's Mercedes SUV.
A loaded gun was found in Smith's vehicle but a firearms expert said there was no evidence Smith brandished or fired it.
Fuller told jurors that Hayes was the victim of an incomplete investigation. He said police failed to take a DNA sample from a cup found on the crime scene. (Hayes said Smith had thrown a drink cup at him at the beginning of their confrontation).
Fuller also said investigators failed to obtain video from a bar and two restaurants that Smith had visited with friends prior to the shooting, video that might have helped in gauging Smith's temperament that night.
A pathologist's report showed Smith was legally drunk, with a high alcohol level at the time of his death. He was driving with a group of friends traveling in multiple cars when his SUV appeared to lightly bump Hayes' Hummer -- a bump captured on surveillance videos. Smith then drove off, with Hayes in pursuit.
Hayes vehemently denied that he intentionally rammed Smith's vehicle several blocks later. He told the jury that he was trying to dial 911 and didn't realize how close they were as he tried to report a hit-and-run.
Hayes is a small business owner, former semi-professional football player and father of a 6-year-old son. He said he's an admirer of Smith's career and didn't realize the man he killed was Smith until hours after the shooting, while he was in police custody.