Closing arguments begin as retrial of ex-NFL star Smith's killer nears an end

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The manslaughter retrial for the man who shot former New Orleans Saints star Will Smith following a traffic crash almost eight years ago neared its end Friday, with a defense lawyer insisting Cardell Hayes rightfully feared for his life when he shot Smith — and the city's top prosecutor insisting Hayes fired needlessly.

“One gun was fired by one man,” an animated District Attorney Jason Williams said, holding in the air the evidence-tagged handgun that Hayes fired, hitting Smith eight times — seven in the back — and also hitting Smith's wife in the legs.

Hayes was convicted in December 2016 of manslaughter in Smith's death and attempted manslaughter for the gunshot wounding of Racquel Smith. But the jury vote was 10-2, and the conviction was tossed after the Supreme Court outlawed nonunanimous verdicts. Hayes was released on bond after having served more than four years of a 25-year sentence.

His retrial was delayed for various reasons, including court closures during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prosecutors rested their case against Hayes on Friday, and the defense chose not to call witnesses after that, setting the stage for closing arguments and jury deliberations.

Assistant District Attorney Matt Derbes, during closing arguments, readily conceded that Smith was drunk at the time Hayes ran into the rear of his car before the shooting, and that a loud argument ensued.

He also acknowledged that a gun was in Smith’s car. But there was no testimony or evidence indicating he retrieved it.

Defense attorney John Fuller insisted prosecutors had not proven that Hayes didn’t 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 he intended to get a gun from his car.

Hayes, 36, insisted at his 2016 trial that he shot Smith in self-defense during the April 2016 confrontation. Hayes said he fired at Smith, hitting him once in the side and seven times in the back, only because he believed a drunken and belligerent Smith had retrieved a gun from his SUV. He insisted on the stand more than seven years ago that he heard a “pop” before he started shooting and that he did not shoot at Smith’s wife, who was hit in the legs.

Fuller did not call Hayes to the stand this time. In his closing argument, he 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,’ ” Fuller said, referring to prosecution testimony about Racquel’s efforts to defuse the argument.

Evidence showed Will 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.

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.

Hayes, who owned a tow truck business, once played semi-pro football. He has one son.