(ABC)– A jury found Cardell Hayes guilty of manslaughter on Sunday night in New Orleans, hours after the prosecution and the defense completed their closing arguments and the jury began deliberations.
Hayes was accused of fatally shooting former New Orleans Saints star Will Smith in an alleged road rage incident.
The jury found Hayes guilty of manslaughter in the killing of Will Smith and attempted manslaughter of Raquel Smith, the NFL player’s wife. He was found not guilty of aggravated criminal damage to property.
Smith, 34, died after an altercation with Hayes in New Orleans on April 9. He was found dead in his Mercedes SUV with the driver’s door open, slumped over the driver’s seat, according to The Associated Press.
Hayes can receive a possible sentence of up to 40 years in prison at his sentencing on Feb. 17, the Associated Press reported. Jurors opted for the lesser charge of manslaughter rather than the second-degree murder charge he faced, which would have carried a mandatory life sentence.
Racquel Smith said her “heart is full of gratitude,” in a statement released after the verdict. She thanked the New Orleans Police Department and district attorney’s office who “worked tirelessly,” on her late husband’s case.
The prosecution and defense painted different portraits of the incident that took place between the two men this past spring as the trial came to a close on Sunday.
“Will Smith played defense for the Saints but he was defenseless that night. Now it’s your turn to play defense for him,” Orleans Parish Assistant District Attorney Jason Napoli asserted today about the former Saints player in his closing arguments.
Napoli said that all of the bullets and casings found at the scene were from Hayes’ gun, a statement that seems intended to refute Hayes’ testimony that he heard Smith fire his own weapon. A loaded gun was found inside Smith’s Mercedes SUV, according to police, but there was no evidence that the weapon had been fired.
Napoli also pointed to testimony from Kevin O’Neal, who was riding in Hayes’ orange Hummer at the time of the incident. O’Neal testified on Thursday that there was no physical contact between the two parties during the incident.
However, Hayes testified that Smith punched him multiple times during the altercation.
According to local ABC affiliate WGNO, O’Neal said when they were at a red light and it turned green, Smith hit the brakes, causing Hayes’ vehicle to hit Smith’s. Police said the rear window of Smith’s Mercedes SUV shattered from the impact.
Hayes is also charged with attempted second-degree murder for allegedly shooting and injuring Smith’s wife, Racquel Smith, in the incident.
“Racquel Smith had to watch as the love of her life was murdered,” Napoli said today.
Defense attorney John Fuller made an emotional and at times angry plea on behalf of Hayes in his closing arguments.
“Have you asked yourself what would happen if we treated this case the same, but the roles were reversed?” Fuller said, arguing that, in his opinion, if Smith had shot Hayes, this case would not have gone to trial. “Would anyone be sitting at this defense table? Change the variables and no one would be sitting here. Everyone knows that.”
According to The Times-Picayune, Fuller previously said that his client felt threatened and was the victim of a hit-and-run by either Smith or Smith’s friends who were driving in a separate car just moments before Hayes’ Hummer was involved in an accident with Smith’s Mercedes SUV. “My client was not the aggressor,” Fuller said in a court appearance in April, The Times-Picayune reported.
Fuller also insinuated that witnesses who knew Smith lied about what happened, and suggested that the prosecution tried to focus on making the defense attorneys look bad.
“Y’all are really seeing how this [district attorney’s] office operates!” he told the jury.
Fuller concluded by saying that Smith didn’t deserve to die, but that he put Hayes in a position where he had to defend himself. “This boy acted in self-defense,” he said, laying a hand on Hayes.
“You’ve got to make some tough decisions,” Fuller told the jury. “The proper decision is ‘not guilty’ on all counts.”
Assistant District Attorney Laura Rodrigue then delivered the state’s rebuttal, accusing Fuller of seeming to think that this case was “about him.”
She also denied Fuller’s claim that there was “special treatment” for this case. “Every time a victim in this city comes forward, we take those cases as they are,” she said.
Ultimately, she said the case comes down to “math and science.” She said Hayes made no effort to slam on the brakes, “which means that crash is intentional.” She also blasted Hayes’ testimony that he was punched multiple times, saying there were no marks on his face. “Does that make sense?” she asked.
“This is about someone getting really mad. That’s what this is about,” Rodrigue said.
“You murdered him and continue to murder his memory,” she added of Hayes’ testimony in court. “… I know he won’t die in vain. I know his death won’t be considered justified.”
She concluded: “Ladies and gentlemen, please do not throw math and science out the window.”