The most publicized criminal trial in New Orleans for at least 20 years ended with Cardell Hayes being found gulity of manslaughter. The whole mishigas was the result of a road rage encounter with former New Orleans Saints defensive captain Will Smith. Race was not an issue as both Hayes and Smith are African-American. Hayes was charged with second degree murder, so the reduced charge seems to be the result of a jury compromise. It means they were able to see through the smoke blown by both sides during the 7 day trial.
I’ve been sympathetic to Cardell Hayes. I have an elderly around the corner neighbor lady who knows him. She’s one of those people whose name I used to know but forgot. I’m now too embarrassed to ask since we’ve been chatting for 15 years. We had this conversation last week:
NL: You been following the Cardell thing?
A: Yes, m’am. What do you think about it?
NL: I been knowin’ Cardell and his people for 30 years. A nice man. What you call a gentle giant.
A: What do you think happened?
NL: I believe Cardell. I think he scared that night. His auntie told me he broken up. Wishes he didn’t have that gun in his car. I liked it better when men settled their bullshit with their fists.
There it is in a nutshell. Despite being a very large man (6’6″ 300 lbs) Cardell Hayes had a gun. He got into it with another very large man with a gun in his glove box. No guns, no death. Cardell wasn’t cruising around looking for trouble. But he found it. Big time.
The crucial moment in this tragedy was when Will Smith’s car kissed bumpers with Cardell’s vehicle on Magazine Street. If Smith had gotten out the car, introduced himself, and inspected their bumpers, no road rage episode. There might not have even been a fight. Instead, Smith was driving shit-faced drunk and kept going. It was the prelude to this tragedy.
After Hayes caught up with Smith’s party, one of his cronies Richard Hernandez started screaming at Hayes and ripped his shirt off as if in a bad action movie. Another witness, former Saints star Pierre Thomas, said that in his neighborhood, when a guy rips his shirt off he’s ready to fight. Yeah, you right, Frenchy. It’s stupid in your hood and it was lethal in the Lower Garden District.
This is a tragic case. Nobody behaved particularly well at the scene with the exception of Raquel Smith who tried to defuse things. This was one situation where mentioning one’s celebrity status might have helped instead of coming off as pompous. Cardell Hayes did not know the identity of the large drunk screaming at him in the dark. He only learned that it was one of his favorite NFL players after the fact. He broke down in tears when he learned he had shot Will Smith. That’s the thing about football: the players aren’t always recognizable because of helmets and face masks. It helps them stay safe on the field, but it was perilous on that April night in New Orleans.
Speaking of bad behavior, the lawyers in this case traded barbs and insults from the moment John Fuller was hired to defend Cardell Hayes. Their petty bickering even came up during closing arguments. I’m appalled by this unprofessional behavior: nobody cares if they dislike one another. The trial isn’t about them, it’s about the defendant and his victim. Of course, the lead prosecutor is the District Attorney’s kid and Mr. Cannizzarro is not exactly warm and fuzzy. Like father, like daughter.
In the end, I think the jury reached a fair verdict. Second degree murder was an overcharge. What really happened out there remains murky but one thing is certain: if these men were not armed, Will Smith would be alive and Cardell Hayes would not be facing a long prison sentence. I hope that the Judge will be merciful. She has considerable discretion in sentencing since it’s manslaughter. I wish I could say that the Hayes/Smith tragedy will serve as a cautionary tale that it’s a terrible idea to go about armed but I know better. So it goes.
There were no winners in this case, only victims.