Man who shot ex-Saints star Will Smith receives 25-year prison sentence for manslaughter


NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The man who fatally shot retired NFL star Will Smith during a confrontation following a car crash in 2016 received a 25-year prison sentence Thursday in a New Orleans courtroom.

It was the second time Cardell Hayes, 36, had faced sentencing in Smith’s death. He was convicted of manslaughter in December 2016 and later sentenced to 25 years. But the jury vote had been 10-2 and the conviction was later tossed after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed such non-unanimous verdicts.

After a new trial, Hayes was convicted by a unanimous jury in January, rejecting defense arguments that Hayes had fired in self-defense, thinking that a drunken and belligerent Smith had retrieved a gun from his SUV.

“This court has struggled with this case since the time I got it,” said state District Judge Camille Buras, who presided in both trials. Before sentencing Hayes, she acknowledged the strong support he received from friends and family, and testimony that he had been a model prisoner. But she noted that both Hayes and a companion were armed when they exited Hayes’ car after the crash. And she said Smith was unarmed as he retreated to his car “perhaps to arm himself, perhaps not.”

Smith was shot eight times — seven times in the back — during the confrontation.

Buras also noted the damaging force with which Hayes’ Hummer rammed Smith’s SUV on the night of the crash. Surveillance video from the night of the shooting showed Smith’s Mercedes SUV possibly bumping Hayes’ Hummer, then driving off. Hayes followed them. He has said he did not intend to ram Smith’s car and the jury acquitted him on a charge related to the ramming at the 2016 trial.

Prosecutors had asked for the 25-year sentence, saying Hayes, while he has expressed sorrow, has never acknowledged wrongdoing. Defense lawyer Sarah Chervinsky didn’t directly ask for a specific sentence but noted strong community and family support for Hayes and, at one point in her argument, said “five years is enough.”

Smith’s daughter Lisa, now a teenager, was among those who spoke in court before the sentencing. She said her mother had to relearn to walk after the shooting and she lamented not having her father around for major life events.

“Mr. Hayes, you ruined my life,” she said. “You took my father away from me.”

In testimony in support of Hayes, his mother, Dawn Mumphrey, expressed sorrow for the loss of Smith. “Our lives are forever changed as well,” she said, her voice shaking. She tearfully looked at the judge. “I ask for your mercy,” she said.

Hayes has long said he fired in self-defense. During his first trial, he testified that he heard a “pop” before he started shooting and that he did not shoot at Smith’s wife, Racquel, who was hit in the legs.

Evidence showed Smith was 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. At the January retrial, defense attorney John Fuller did not call Hayes to testify, but insisted prosecutors had failed to prove Hayes didn’t fire in self-defense.

Hayes was released on bond in 2021 after having served more than four years of the original sentence. He was out of prison during multiple retrial delays, some due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But he was taken back into custody following the unanimous Jan. 27 verdict and had been awaiting sentencing at the New Orleans jail.

The overturned verdicts from the 2016 jury also included an attempted manslaughter conviction in the wounding of Racquel Smith. Hayes was acquitted of that charge at January’s second trial.

Hayes has already served more than four years in prison, for which he will receive credit. He has also been subject to strict supervision and home confinement. It was not immediately clear whether and how that would count toward his sentence. Buras said she would discuss that with prison officials.

Before Thursday’s sentencing, about two dozen of Hayes’ family and friends formed a circle and prayed in the wide courthouse hallway.

Smith, a 34-year-old 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. Smith attended Ohio State University and helped the Buckeyes win the 2002 national championship.

Hayes, who owned a tow truck business, once played semi-pro football and is the father of a teenager and a 2-year-old child.

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