NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Calling it a "profoundly sad and tragic" case, a judge sentenced a 29-year-old New Orleans man to 25 years in prison for killing former Saints star Will Smith and wounding Smith's wife after an April 2016 traffic crash.
Thursday's sentencing by Louisiana Judge Camille Buras was the culmination of a case that riveted the city for more than a year. It capped two days of shattering, sad and sometimes bitter pre-sentence testimony: from Smith's widow, sister and Saints coach Sean Payton among others on Wednesday; from shooter Cardell Hayes, his mother, friends and loved ones on Thursday.
Hayes had faced up to 60 years if given consecutive maximum terms for manslaughter and attempted manslaughter, as prosecutors had urged. Instead, Buras gave him 15 years for shooting Racquel Smith in the legs, to be served at the same time as the manslaughter sentence.
Hayes, who was unwavering in insisting his life was in danger when he shot Smith, will get a year of credit for the time he's already served since shooting one of the city's sports heroes. State law requires him to serve 85 percent of the sentence before becoming eligible for good-behavior release, meaning he could be freed in roughly 20 years.
"If he was sentenced to 60 years he probably could have died in jail. At least with 25 he has the opportunity to be reunited with his family," said Hayes' lawyer, John Fuller, speaking outside court.
Smith's widow, Racquel Smith, said she was "extremely disappointed" at what she called the leniency of the sentence, given the violence of the crime and her family's pain and loss.
"This ordeal has been a nightmare for me and my family. There are no winners here today," her statement said. She praised prosecutors and police, and said she and their three children, Willie, Lisa and Wynter, will carry on Smith's legacy of love for his community.
"I will continue to shine my light for my Superman," she said.
Hayes, a beefy, 6-foot-4 ex-semi-pro football lineman, lumbered to the stand with his arms and legs shackled, and broke down in tears Thursday as he talked of the effect on his 6-year-old son and his mother.
He looked at Racquel Smith and told her he wished the night had never happened. He insisted he was afraid for his life as Smith fired a gun at him, despite trial evidence and witness testimony indicating Smith never handled or fired his gun.
Later, under tough questioning by a prosecutor, he referred to the Smiths, saying, "I apologize for their loss."
Hayes' mother, Dawn Mumphrey, also testified, wailing and shaking as she pleaded for mercy and forgiveness.
"That's my baby," she cried. "Lock me up and give me my son back."
Assistant New Orleans District Attorney Laura Rodrigue dismissed the tears as a "desperate attempt" to gain sympathy, and hammered at Hayes' claim of self-defense. She referenced a 2016 recording of a prison phone conversation, played at trial, in which Hayes called Racquel Smith "a phony" and Mumphrey also disparaged her.
"Cardell Hayes took the stand and flat-out lied. That's the most offensive part of this entire process," Rodrigue said.
Smith was cast during the trial as a beloved community leader and a football hero, part of the Saints team that lifted the city's spirits after Hurricane Katrina and later won a Super Bowl. Payton testified Wednesday that had Smith survived, he would have hired him as an assistant.
The defense noted that Hayes owned a business towing cars and lacked any prior record of serious crimes.
The night of the shooting, Smith was driving with his wife and another couple. They were among a group of friends in several cars. Surveillance video showed his Mercedes possibly bumping Hayes' Hummer, then driving off.
Hayes followed them, and slammed into Smith's SUV. Both hulky former athletes then got out and argued in the street.
Hayes said he repeatedly shot Smith in fear for his life, but no other witness or evidence supported his belief that Smith fired a weapon. Smith's gun was found in his car, loaded but unused.
Smith was hit eight times — seven in the back and once in the side. His wife was hit in the legs.
A pathologist determined Smith was legally drunk. The ex-player had spent time at the city's annual French Quarter Festival, a bar and two restaurants.
Hayes' defense said after the trial that Smith's popularity led to a rush to judgment by police and prosecutors. Prosecutors countered that the defense was trying to smear Smith. The judge ultimately rejected a defense motion for a retrial.
Associated Press writers Janet McConnaughey and Rebecca Santana contributed to this report.