NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The bullet-riddled corpse of a retired football star — seven shots to the back, one to the side — makes a powerful starting point for prosecutors as they build the case against a gunman jailed in the death of former New Orleans Saint Will Smith, say legal experts who are watching the story unfold.
But attorneys also say there may be a credible self-defense argument for Cardell Hayes.
Hayes is the 28-year-old ex-semi-pro football player jailed for allegedly killing Smith late Saturday after a car crash and subsequent confrontation — the details of which are the subject of hot dispute.
"Under Louisiana law the prosecution has the burden of disproving self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. So, the defense can argue that he believed — reasonably believed — that he was in danger of losing his life, and that killing Will Smith was necessary to save himself," said attorney and Loyola University law professor Dane Ciolino.
Smith was shot eight times late Saturday after an angry confrontation with the driver of a Hummer that crashed into the rear of the Mercedes SUV that Smith was driving. Smith's wife was shot in both legs during the ensuing melee.
Hayes stayed at the scene until police arrived and police said he admitted to being the shooter. Jail records say he's being held for alleged second-degree murder, with bail set at $1 million, but he has not yet been formally charged. Prosecutors in District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office are expected to take evidence to a grand jury ahead of a preliminary hearing set for April 28.
Heralded as a leader on the Saints team that rebounded with the hurricane-stricken city and won the Super Bowl after the 2009 season, Smith was a New York native and Ohio State star who stayed in the area after his 2012 retirement.
His popularity is one of the hurdles for the defense, says Janet "Jancy" Hoeffel, a criminal lawyer and professor at Tulane's law school.
"You're looking at getting a jury, anywhere in the state of Louisiana, for a Saint," she said. "I think there are no greater heroes in this town than the team, the Saints. People are huge fans here in ways that I don't see in other cities."
Hayes, little known before the shooting, was characterized by the Smith family's lawyer this week as an enraged gunman. Peter Thomson said Hayes shot Smith's wife Racquel in each leg, then pumped Smith full of bullets, standing over the body and yelling as Racquel cowered.
It's an image that doesn't jibe with that of Hayes' friends.
"He's a nice guy. He's not hot-tempered. He's mild-mannered. That's who he is. That's who he's been since we were growing up," said Sha'Teek Nobles, pastor of My Redeemer Missionary Baptist Church, who has known Hayes since grade school.
Lee Green, who coached Hayes at Warren Easton High School, remembered him as cheerful and quiet. "I would say more of a mama's boy," Green said. He said Hayes' mother regularly brought him to school, to summer practices and to tutoring sessions.
Hayes' defense lawyer John Fuller has stated that Hayes was not the aggressor Saturday night and that a witness saw a gun in Smith's possession. Police say a loaded, unfired gun was found in Smith's vehicle. Thomson insists Smith never brandished or carried it.
Veteran New Orleans lawyer Donald "Chick" Foret, sees possible arguments for the defense. Thomson's statement that Racquel Smith was shot first plays into one of them. If it's true, Foret says, it could be argued that Hayes first was squeezing off warning shots that hit her legs. It could also be argued that shots to the back and side indicate Smith was reaching into the car for a gun.
Foret believes Thomson, the Smiths' lawyer, may have played into defense hands by holding a news conference in which he gave a detailed account of what he believed happened the night of the shooting — essentially telegraphing possible elements of the prosecution case.
Hoeffel, agrees. She also marvels at how a case that initially looked like "a fairly straightforward homicide" has evolved. Details have emerged, including video showing that Smith's car appears to have lightly rear-ended Hayes's vehicle a few blocks away from the shooting scene, moments before the confrontation.
"There was not just one accident, but two, it sounds like," she said in a Thursday interview.
Ciolino took note of amateur video from the shooting scene that shows one unidentified witness saying he heard two men arguing — each saying he had a gun.
"The defense certainly has facts to work with," said Ciolino. "There was a gun in Will Smith's car. There was talk of using the gun. That makes the self-defense claim colorable. Whether it's persuasive, that remains to be seen at trial."