They sat at opposite ends of the first row here at Orleans Criminal District Court, where a man named Cardell Hayes stood trial for the murder of Will Smith, their friend, their coworker, their old teammate on the New Orleans Saints.
Drew Brees, the quarterback great, sat on one end, near the wall. Steve Gleason, in his motorized wheelchair and breathing machine due to his inspirational battle against ALS, was on the other side in the courtroom’s center aisle. They are among, if not the two most beloved heroes, football or otherwise, in this town.
The Saints aren’t just the local NFL team, but are widely hailed as a catalyst for post-Hurricane Katrina recovery. Gleason is recalled for a legendary blocked punt in the team’s first game back in the Superdome in 2006. Brees, along with Smith, led the Saints to a Super Bowl XLIV championship in February of 2010.
Brees and Gleason arrived at the stately, arch-ceiling, marble-walled Southern courthouse during a late morning recess on Tuesday’s opening day of a trial that has gripped the attention of the city. When jurors returned to the courtroom, they noticed the presence of the stars, engaging in double looks and craning their necks to get a clearer view. This was just part of the scene, the symbolism impossible to miss.
New Orleans safety Roman Harper and former Saint Deuce McAllister were here too. Pierre Thomas is a critical witness who is expected to testify. During the prosecution’s opening statement, it was noted that coach Sean Payton had given Smith an open invitation to join the team’s coaching staff, a true character seal of approval if there ever was one.
“Loving husband, loving father,” prosecutor Jason Napoli described Smith in his opening statement. “That’s not how we knew him though. We knew him for defense – No. 91 of the New Orleans Saints, the team that brought the Super Bowl to New Orleans.
“We knew Will Smith for defense,” Napoli continued. “On April 9, 2016, he died the very opposite … defenseless.”
Hayes, 28, is not disputing that he killed Smith, 34, that night via eight shots from a .45 caliber handgun. The two had been involved in two minor automobile accidents that night, the first instigated by Smith, who was drunk, the second by Hayes, who was sober, after Smith left the scene. A wild argument in a Garden District street ensued involving both drivers and passengers.
Hayes, himself a 6-foot-6, 300-pound semi-pro football player, said he shot Smith because he feared for his own life when Smith threatened him and said he was going to get his own gun from his Mercedes. The defense argues that was what escalated the dispute and left Hayes with the right to defend himself accordingly. Racquel Smith, Will’s wife and mother of his children, was also shot and suffered leg injuries, but she survived. Hayes is also facing attempted second-degree murder charges in the shooting of Racquel Smith.
The case will likely be decided by whether the jury believes Hayes was under any danger from Smith. It will be considered within the scope of Louisiana’s so-called stand your ground laws. Here in New Orleans the mood is tense. The trial began just days after the slaying of Joe McKnight, a local high school legend and later NFL player, in another road-rage/self-defense case. The suspect in that case was arrested Monday and charged with manslaughter.
At the start of this trial, the defense says Hayes’ actions were a tragic, yet justifiable act of self-defense. It began Tuesday laying the groundwork for a sloppy and rushed police investigation that quickly deemed Hayes the aggressor and Smith the victim in part because of Smith’s fame and popularity. It claims police worked backward from there, missing potentially critical evidence that the opposite was true.
The prosecution says Hayes was the instigator and the evidence presented over the next week to 10 days will prove it.
In the backdrop, however, are the Saints. Hayes didn’t kill just anyone. He didn’t kill just another doting husband and father of three. He didn’t kill just another black man in a city where such a thing is painfully common.
He killed the defensive captain of the most beloved team in the city’s history, a man who doubled as a charismatic community leader. Just about everyone around here knew or knew of Will Smith, a challenge the defense is attempting to take head-on.
“We heard talk about Mr. Smith and his fantastic football career,” defense attorney Jay Daniels said to the jury during his opening statement. “That isn’t on trial here. We heard about his community giving, his charitable giving. That isn’t on trial.”
Or so Hayes hopes. He spent the day sitting quietly taking in the testimony, wearing a blue suit so new it still had some parts of the tags visible. At times he smiled and waved to the couple dozen supporters there for him.
Soon Daniels was reconstructing the night to the jury, trying to refute the state’s story that Hayes purposefully rear-ended Smith, came out of the car with a gun in his hand and eventually pumped eight bullets into him, seven at close range while declaring, “That’s what you get now.”
Daniels did all he could to not refer to Smith by name, and certainly not by his former occupation. When running through their theory of events, he was referred to simply as “the big guy” even though Hayes is actually bigger.
“The big guy in the Mercedes takes a few swings at Cardell Hayes,” Daniels said to the jury at one point.
“The big guy said, ‘You’ve got a gun? Well I got a gun too, and I’m going to show you what to do with it,’” Daniels said another time. “Cardell said, ‘No, don’t do that.’ But the big guy is angry.”
“Cardell didn’t discharge his weapon until the big guy reached into his car,” Daniels said – a critical timeline fact that is very much in dispute.
It’s about all the defense can attempt to do. If the jury views Smith as a hero, rather than an equal to Hayes, then the defense’s task just got tougher.