SMITH'S WIDOW IN COURT — Racquel Smith, widow of former New Orleans Saints star and Proctor High of Utica graduate Will Smith, leaves the Orleans Parish criminal courthouse with supporters on Wednesday after a sentencing hearing for Cardell Hayes. Hayes killed her husband and shot her during a road rage incident last year. (AP Photo)

Defense to plead for leniency in killing of Will Smith

Published Apr 20, 2017 at 8:37am

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The defense will get a chance to make its case for leniency today when a sentencing hearing resumes in the shooting death of former New Orleans Saints star and Proctor High of Utica graduate Will Smith.

Smith's widow, Racquel, and other loved ones took the stand Wednesday and tearfully aimed bitter remarks at her husband's killer, Cardell Hayes.

Hayes, 29, could be sentenced to 60 years for fatally shooting Smith and wounding Racquel Smith in a confrontation after a traffic crash last year.

Hayes, who was convicted of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter, insisted at trial that he shot in self-defense.

His family and friends were in the courtroom as well Wednesday and some may be called to the stand today to show support.

Judge Camille Buras denied a new trial for Hayes on Wednesday and is expected to impose a sentence no later than Friday.

Buras rejected numerous defense arguments for a new trial, including the claim of a newly found witness who contradicted all trial evidence by saying he heard more than two weapons fired the night Smith was killed.

The surprise new witness produced by the defense Wednesday was Michael Burnside of New Orleans, who took the stand insisting he heard two different weapons fired during the traffic dispute between Hayes and Smith.

Appearing in court with wild mane of hair and a bushy beard, Burnside appeared near tears at times and twice let slip a profanity. He acknowledged that he didn't witness the killing, and called himself a "coward" for failing to come forward immediately.

New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton took a front row seat alongside Smith's family and friends for the hearing.

Smith was cast during the trial not only as a football hero — part of the Saints team that lifted the stricken city's spirits after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the one that won a Super Bowl in 2010 — but also a beloved community leader who settled in New Orleans after retirement.

The sentencing is likely to echo that drama, including testimony from Racquel Smith about how she and their three children have been affected.

The defense has noted the absence of any serious criminal record and has said Hayes, the father of a 6-year-old son who owns a tow truck business, feared for his life when he encountered a drunken and angry Smith in the traffic dispute.

Jurors heard that Hayes' Hummer had rear-ended Smith's Mercedes SUV that night, shortly after the SUV appeared to have tapped the rear of Hayes's car.

Although prosecutors said Hayes deliberately rammed Smith's vehicle, Hayes insisted he was trying to get Smith's license number when the second crash occurred. The jury appeared to believe Hayes on this point, finding him not guilty of aggravated criminal damage to property.

Hayes insisted he fired at Smith, hitting him once in the side and seven times in the back, only because he believed Smith had retrieved a gun from the SUV. He insisted on the stand that he heard a "pop" before he started shooting.

Prosecutors have acknowledged that the former Saint had a high blood-alcohol level after spending a day at the city's annual French Quarter festival and the evening dining and drinking with friends. But they said he did nothing to provoke the shooting.