NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Former New Orleans Saints running back Pierre Thomas told a jury Wednesday that he thought a heated argument between retired Saints star Will Smith and an irate driver had cooled — but then he heard gunshots and turned to see his friend being gunned down.
"After the shooting stopped I stood there in shock. Telling myself that didn't happen," Thomas said, his voice shaking. "Telling myself he didn't just kill one of my friends, my former teammate."
Smith's killer was Cardell Hayes, 29, a former semi-pro football player and owner of a tow-truck business. At dispute in the second-degree murder trial is whether Hayes legitimately feared for his life when both men got out of their cars after a collision to confront each other on a street in New Orleans.
Hayes also wounded Smith's wife, Racquel, in the legs, before surrendering to police at the scene.
Thomas' testimony is the latest to bolster the prosecution's scenario of how the shooting unfolded: The Smiths were out for the evening with friends after a festival in the French Quarter. The group was traveling in three different vehicles when Smith's Mercedes SUV stopped short behind an orange Hummer.
Surveillance video appears to show that the SUV may have lightly bumped the Hummer. Smith then steered around it and continued on his way, with the Hummer in pursuit. Moments later, the Hummer rammed into the rear of Smith's vehicle, and both drivers got out and angrily confronted each other.
Only Hayes was armed. Police have said a loaded handgun remained in Smith's car.
Prosecutors and their witnesses say Racquel had calmed her husband, the argument had subsided when Hayes fired, hitting her in the legs, followed by a bullet to Smith's side and seven more in his back.
Defense attorneys John Fuller and Jay Daniels have questioned these witnesses' credibility and insisted that Hayes fired in fear that Smith was going for his own gun.
While the prosecution says Hayes deliberately rammed his Hummer into the SUV, the defense says the collision was an accident, which they blamed on Hayes being distracted as he tried to report the earlier contact between the vehicles to 911.
Fuller noted that Smith had been drinking at the festival, a bar and two restaurants earlier that night, but Thomas insisted that Smith showed no signs of being out of control, and resisted suggestions that he was trying to burnish Smith's image.
"I want justice," he told Fuller during his cross-examination.
Thomas said he had been in a car ahead of the SUV, and was walking back to the scene after hearing a crash and seeing signs of a wreck in his rearview mirror. He saw Smith being fired upon, then confirmed his fears.
Another Smith family friend, Rebecca Dooley testified Wednesday that Hayes shouted taunts at the slain man's body, sounding "evil" and showing no remorse.
Dooley and her husband were riding with Smith and his wife when the Hummer slammed into them.
"They just both seemed angry: Will saying 'You hit my car,' 'Mr. Hayes saying, 'You hit me first, then back and forth, back and forth," Dooley testified.
Dooley said her husband and Hayes' passenger also had words, and that the passenger took a swing at her husband. But she said no physical contact was made among any of those arguing, and she too thought tempers had calmed.
Then, she said: "I see Mr. Hayes walking toward Will with a gun pointed at him. I hear shots fired. I see Will's body jolt."
"Look at you now. You were showing off," Dooley quoted Hayes as saying over Smith's slumped body.
"It just sounded like there was no remorse — evil kind of sounding," Dooley testified.
Then, she said, "I heard Mr. Hayes say, 'Where's that white boy at?'"
"At that point I though he was looking for my husband," she said, but no other shots were fired.
Contradicting a developing defense narrative, Dooley and Thomas said they never heard Smith threaten to fetch a gun before he was shot.
Dooley's husband, Richard Hernandez, also took the stand Wednesday, and the defense pointed to inconsistencies in his testimony as well as a discrepancy between his account and what his wife apparently told police.
Fuller noted that Hernandez testified at one point that the drivers were calm after the accident but also said he pulled his shirt off, expecting a fight. Fuller also said that Dooley had told police that Hayes' passenger, Kevin O'Neal, tried to calm the situation down.
But Hernandez, who had argued with O'Neal at the scene, characterized O'Neal as aggressive.