BACK IN COURT — Racquel Smith, widow of former New Orleans Saints star Will Smith, arrives at the Orleans Parish criminal courthouse today in New Orleans with supporters for the second day of a sentencing hearing for Cardell Hayes. Hayes killed her husband and shot her last year in a road rage incident. (AP Photo)

Will Smith's killer apologizes to his widow in court

Published Apr 20, 2017 at 1:53pm

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The man who killed retired New Orleans Saints star and Proctor High of Utica graduate Will Smith during a traffic dispute cried about missing his son, insisted he acted in self-defense and apologized to Smith's widow and family during his sentencing hearing today.

Cardell Hayes, who faces up to 60 years in prison for manslaughter and attempted manslaughter, said he understands the pain the three Smith children feel as they go through life without their father.

"That's what I fear most for my son, not to be there for him," Hayes said, then dissolved into tears and stammered out: "I'm not really there for my son."

Racquel Smith also became tearful, and expressed her bitterness the day before as she stared down the man who shot her in the legs and repeatedly fired into her husband's back. She accused him of lying to support a more lenient sentence.

Today was the defense's opportunity to show Hayes' human side before Judge Camille Buras declares his sentence on Friday. Hayes was the first witness called.

Twice, the beefy ex-semi-pro football lineman, who lumbered to the stand with his arms and legs shackled, broke down in tears: first, when he talked of his 6-year-old son, and later as he tried to describe the physical and mental toll his case has had on his mother. At one point, he was allowed to leave the courtroom to regain his composure.

He looked at Racquel Smith and told her he wishes the night had never happened. And later, after again insisting that he acted in self-defense as Smith fired a gun at him, despite trial evidence to the contrary, he referred to the Smith family, saying, "I apologize for their loss."

The judge rejected a motion to retry Hayes after the defense presented a new witness Wednesday who said he heard two weapons fired the night Smith was killed.

Michael Burnside, who appeared in court with wild hair, spoke in a rambling manner, twice let slip a profanity and called himself a "coward" for not coming forward earlier. He also acknowledged that he didn't witness the killing, and the prosecutor poked other holes in his testimony.

Smith's family and NFL colleagues, meanwhile, showed their support in the courtroom. Saints coach Sean Payton took a front row seat.

Smith was cast during the trial as a beloved community leader and a football hero, part of the Saints team that lifted the city's spirits after Hurricane Katrina and later won a Super Bowl.

The defense has noted that Hayes owned a business towing cars and lacked any prior record of serious crimes. His lawyers say he feared for his life when he encountered a drunken and angry Smith that night in April 2016.

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.