Trial Begins in New Orleans Over Shooting Death of Saints’ Will Smith

NEW ORLEANS (CN) –  After a marathon juror-selection process that went late into Monday night, opening statements were expected to begin Tuesday in the trial of a man accused of fatally shooting for Saints star Will Smith following a minor traffic accident.

Defendant Cardell Hayes is charged with second-degree murder for shooting Smith in a confrontation following the crash, but the central issue of the trial may well be Louisiana’s “stand your ground” law.

Hayes’ lawyer has stressed since the incident that the law allows a person to “meet force with force,” rather than retreat from situations in which he might suffer harm.

But prosecutor Laura Rodrigue said that law applies to people who are engaged in lawful activity. The government maintains that Hayes willfully crashed his vehicle into Smith’s prior to the shooting.

The football star was shot dead and his wife Racquel was wounded with a bullet in the leg on a Saturday night last April, after what appeared to be a routine fender bender in the Lower Garden District, a trendy neighborhood with restaurants and bars located about two-and-a-half miles upriver from the French Quarter.

Will Smith was beloved by football fans as a star player on the 2006 Saints team that made it to the NFC Championship Game for the first time in the history of its franchise, symbolically elevating the city of New Orleans from the rubble in the dark months that followed Hurricane Katrina.

Smith also played for the Saints in 2010 the one and only year the team made it to and won the Super Bowl.

The accused shooter, 29-year-old semiprofessional football player Cardell Hayes, is the father of a five-year-old and the owner of a tow-truck company.

If Hayes is found guilty of the second-degree murder charges he faces he will spend a mandatory life in prison.

Smith, his wife and two friends had just left a restaurant on Magazine Street and started toward downtown in two separate cars just before 11:30 p.m. on April 9 when they encountered Hayes.

Surveillance footage shows what appears to be the bumper of Smith’s Mercedes SUV bump the rear of a Hummer that was stopped on the street. The SUV appears to have then pulled around the Hummer without stopping and continued downtown, only to be smashed from behind by the Hummer moments after.

The impact of the Hummer crashing into Smith’s SUV shattered the back window and pushed the SUV forward into the car ahead – a fact that prosecutors have made much of.  The car that Smith’s SUV hit happened to be the one carrying Smith’s friends.

In a bizarre twist, one of the friends Smith had just dined with and who was present at the scene was retired New Orleans police officer William Ceravolo.

Ceravolo was one of six police officers Hayes sued following the shooting death of his father at the hands of police in December 2005.

A jury of eight women and four men was picked from a pool of more than 120 people, the selection process concluding just before 10 p.m. Monday night.

It will be their responsibility to determine who the aggressor was in the altercation.

Hayes reportedly told at least one police officer that he had a gun on him when he stepped out of his Hummer.

He said Smith, who was unarmed, and others came at him, and that Smith hit him. Investigators say Hayes had no sign of injury.

The first officer to arrive at the scene following the crash was Christopher McGaw, an off-duty rookie who happened to be at a nearby bar at the time.

McGaw has testified he approached the scene as the argument broke out, took cover briefly when gunshots were fired, and then started toward the scene again.

He arrived to find Smith slumped across the front seat of his SUV, his hand reaching toward the glove box.

“What was I supposed to do?” Hayes is heard asking on a 911 call McGaw placed at the scene.

A toxicology report later showed Smith was legally drunk at the time of his death. By witness accounts, he was loud and belligerent beforehand.

Hayes has been in jail since the shooting.

A handful of protestors outside the criminal courthouse Monday carried signs, some with pictures of Cardell Hayes, one that read: “He is no monster.” Another read “Stop corruption in the justice system.”

Smith’s shooting death shares strange similarities with the shooting death last Thursday in a New Orleans suburb of another former NFL star, Joe McKnight, who was shot and killed by a motorist following an alleged road rage incident. The accused shooter in that case, Ronald Gasser, a white man, was jailed on a manslaughter charge after initially being questioned and released by police last week.