Nearly eight years after the fatal shooting of retired New Orleans Saints defensive end Will Smith, his killer has finally been brought to justice.
On Saturday, a jury convicted 36-year-old Cardell Hayes on charges of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter for the 2016 death of Smith and wounding of his wife Racquel. Hayes now faces up to 40 years in prison when he is sentenced next month.
The conviction comes after years of delays and twists in the complex case. Hayes was originally tried in 2016, but the verdict was later overturned due to a Supreme Court ruling.
The shooting occurred after an alcohol-fueled traffic altercation between the two men on the night of April 9, 2016. Evidence presented in court showed Hayes fired a total of eight shots from a .45-caliber handgun, with seven bullets striking Smith in the back. One bullet also hit Racquel Smith’s leg as she tried to get between the two men.
Hayes claimed he shot Smith in self-defense after the 6-foot-3, 281-pound football star grabbed his own loaded gun from his Mercedes SUV. But no other weapons were found at the scene besides the single handgun used by Hayes.
“One gun was fired by one man,” Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams told media after the verdict came down.
Williams and his team argued that surveillance footage and ballistics evidence clearly showed Hayes was the sole aggressor and that the former Saint posed no threat when he was gunned down.
“We have had absolutely no evidence — no credible evidence — that Will Smith had a gun,” Assistant District Attorney Matthew Derbes said in closing arguments.
Smith was a fan favorite during his 10 seasons anchoring the Saints defense from 2004-2013. The former Pro Bowler helped lead New Orleans to its first and only Super Bowl victory to date in 2010.
Just months before his shocking death at age 34, Smith had been inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame in recognition of his incredible playing career. His resilient wife Racquel accepted both that honor and his later Ring of Honor induction on behalf of her slain husband.
“In my heart, he is here with us today in spirit,” an emotional Racquel Smith told fans in 2016. “There are moments that I feel Will with me and our family, and he is here today. He is here with us right now, just as proud as ever.”
After years of painful delays, Smith’s family and fans now have some sense of closure as the man responsible for cutting short a beloved player’s life faces decades behind bars. But the ex-Saint’s enduring legacy lives on in New Orleans and beyond.