NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Questions to potential jurors Monday in the Will Smith shooting death trial make clear that Louisiana's "stand your ground" law will be at issue when testimony begins.
Potential jurors in the trial of the man charged with second-degree murder in the death of the former New Orleans Saints star were asked about their attitudes on lethal self-defense. They also were asked whether they can put aside opinions formed amid intense media coverage of Smith's death and how Smith's popularity might affect a verdict.
Smith was a star on the 2006 Saints team that helped lift the stricken city's spirits with a winning season after Hurricane Katrina. He played with the team when it won the franchise's only Super Bowl three seasons later. He was shot to death April 9 during a confrontation following a vehicle crash.
Charged in his death is a 29-year-old former semiprofessional football player named Cardell Hayes. The owner of a tow-truck company and the father of a 5-year-old son, Hayes is described by friends as soft-spoken and even-tempered — hardly the type to erupt into a lethal road rage. His attorney has been laying the groundwork for a self-defense argument, saying Smith was the aggressor.
Jury selection started with about 130 potential jury candidates filing into a New Orleans courtroom. By late Monday, Judge Camille Buras had presided over selection of a jury of 12, with four alternates. Opening arguments were set for Tuesday. Lawyers said the trial could last seven to 10 days.
So many jury candidates were summoned that reporters and other members of the public, including some of Hayes' family and friends, had to listen to an audio feed from a nearby courtroom.
Prosecutor Jason Napoli asked jurors opinions on whether the presence of a gun might escalate or de-escalate tensions.
Defense attorney John Fuller quoted from the state's so-called "stand your ground" law, noting that it allows a person engaged in legal activity to "meet force with force," rather than retreat. He emphasized a section of the law stating that jurors cannot consider the possibility of retreat as a factor in whether the person believed deadly force was necessary.
Later, during an afternoon round of jury candidate questioning, prosecutor Laura Rodigue stressed the words "legal activity." Prosecutors have maintained in pre-trial hearings that Hayes chose to ram into Smith's SUV after Hayes, earlier, had lightly hit the rear of Hayes's vehicle.
Outside, a handful of protesters brandished signs that read, "Free Cardell Hayes." Hayes was wearing a dark suit Monday; he previously had appeared in court dressed in prison orange.
Inside, Fuller asked potential jurors to consider how they would approach the case "if all the actions were the same, but the parties were reversed."
The trial began days after Joe McKnight, another former NFL player, was shot and killed just last Thursday in a New Orleans suburb after a road rage incident on a bridge spiraled out of control. The man authorities identified as the shooter in that case — Ronald Gasser — has been released from custody with no charges as the investigation continues.
Hayes has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder in Smith's death. Conviction carries a mandatory life sentence. He is also charged with attempted second-degree murder in the wounding of Smith's wife, who was shot in the legs. He has been jailed since the April shooting, unable to make the $1.75 million bond.