A frenzied display of legal brinkmanship in the Will Smith murder case ended Thursday with accused killer Cardell Hayes pleading not guilty to a four-count indictment accusing him of murdering the former Saints lineman and attempting to kill Smith’s wife late on April 9 in the Lower Garden District.
An Orleans Parish prosecutor rushed the indictment into Orleans Parish Magistrate Court at 1 p.m., halting a preliminary hearing just seconds after a defense investigator offered dramatic testimony aimed at bolstering Hayes’ apparent self-defense claim.
The investigator, David Olasky, testified that an eyewitness told him she saw former New Orleans police captain Billy Ceravolo pluck a gun from Smith’s Mercedes SUV as the former Saints lineman lay dead in the driver’s seat.
An attorney for Ceravolo, who dined with the Smiths and former Saints running back Pierre Thomas on Magazine Street shortly before the fatal gunfire, categorically denied that claim.
Hayes stayed at the shooting scene and was arrested on suspicion of second-degree murder. He now faces additional counts of attempted murder for the bullets that struck Racquel Smith in both legs, aggravated assault and criminal damage to property. The murder count for Smith’s slaying remains. It carries a life prison term if Hayes is convicted.
Authorities say Hayes, 28, rammed his Hummer into the rear of Smith’s SUV, sparking a three-car accident and a volatile altercation about 11:30 p.m. on Sophie Wright Place. Police say Hayes shot Racquel Smith and fired eight shots into the beloved Super Bowl champion, seven in the back.
Hayes’ attorneys, John Fuller and Jay Daniels, have asserted that their client was only pursuing the license plate number on Smith’s SUV after being bumped from behind two blocks earlier. He was “not the aggressor,” and “legally not guilty,” they claim.
Last week, Fuller issued a well-publicized request for Cannizzaro to let Hayes testify before the grand jury - a bold gambit considering defense attorneys can join their clients but can’t question witnesses or address the secret body.
Cannizzaro’s office called the bluff on Thursday. Sheriff’s deputies escorted Hayes from the Orleans Parish jail to the district attorney’s office, where a grand jury was meeting over the fatal shooting case. Hayes did not end up testifying, and Fuller described the move by Cannizzaro’s office as “subterfuge,” saying Hayes was taken there without Fuller’s knowledge.
The move came within an hour of a scheduled hearing before Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell over whether authorities had probable cause to hold Hayes on the murder count.
Such preliminary hearings allow defense attorneys to probe the state’s evidence and lock in witness statements well before trial, if not secure their release outright.
Grand juries determine probable cause through indictments that remove the need for a preliminary hearing. Many legal observers anticipated that Cannizzaro’s office would expedite an indictment against Hayes to avert Thursday’s scheduled hearing, for which Fuller had subpoenaed Ceravolo, Thomas and several New Orleans police officers to testify.
Fuller argued that Cannizzaro’s office rarely has gone to a grand jury so quickly and was trying to “jam an indictment down our throat before we can call our first witness,” in the hearing.
“They took my client, who they know is represented by counsel, took him to the DA’s office, a man they’re trying to indict,” Fuller exclaimed in court. “They know that Mr. Hayes can’t be in two places at once.”
Several other witnesses who were under subpoena to testify at the preliminary hearing, including Ceravolo, also were diverted to the DA’s office for the grand jury proceedings.
That left Fuller short on key witnesses while a prosecutor stalled for time amid the dash to secure Hayes’ indictment.
Three witnesses took the stand Thursday before the indictment came down.
The first, emergency medical technician Sherrie Pierre, testified to seeing a crowd when she arrived at the shooting scene, but little else. Pierre said she didn’t smell any alcohol on anyone at the shooting scene.
New Orleans Police Department Officer Amanda Williams testified that she was the first cop on the scene and arrested Hayes without incident. She said he appeared to be sober. Williams said she didn’t see anything in Smith’s SUV.
Both responders said Hayes appeared calm when they arrived.
Olasky, the defense investigator, then took the witness stand to relay an interview he said he conducted with a witness to the shooting scene. She told him she saw Ceravolo take a gun from Smith’s vehicle, and that Smith’s position in the driver’s seat made it appear he was reaching for something, Olasky said.
“The driver’s side door of the Mercedes was open. She could see a man slumped in the driver’s seat, and later on she saw another man come and take a gun from the Mercedes,” he said.
She identified him as Ceravolo, Olasky testified, supporting a defense theory that Hayes may have felt threatened by Smith and fired to protect himself.
But his testimony, and the hearing itself, ended abruptly when Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman rushed into the courtroom holding a sheaf of paper.
“Your honor, an indictment was just returned,” he said.
Fuller and Daniels urged the judge to let the hearing proceed anyway, and Cantrell called for a short pause to decide whether to continue.
Just then, an already circus-like atmosphere grew feverish, as two women came to blows as they exited the courtroom.
Philip Stelly, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman, later said Brittany Fields and Sierra Lee both were booked on municipal battery counts. Their relationships to Hayes or anyone else involved in the case was uncertain.
Cantrell suspended the probable cause hearing, and the case - along with a gaggle of reporters and legal pundits - shifted upstairs to the courtroom of Criminal District Judge Camille Buras.
That’s where the case against Hayes was ultimately headed anyway; judges in Orleans Parish are allotted cases based on the date of an alleged offense.
Hayes was arraigned in Buras’ courtroom, pleading not guilty to the four counts. Buras set a June 9 date to hear motions in the case as Hayes - who stands six-feet-four and weighs 305 pounds - hung his head and shook it in dismay.
Later, Fuller cried foul over the scurrying by Cannizzaro’s office.
“It didn’t surprise me, and that’s sad. They fact they indicted somebody and basically put a halt to a constitutional right, that should be surprising,” Fuller said. “The DA’s office is supposed to protect everybody, but I think they’re trying to protect certain police officers.”
Bowman, a spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office, declined to comment.
Ceravolo’s attorney, Tanya Picou Faia, later dismissed Olasky’s claim about the witness, saying the former officer “denies taking a gun out of the car.”
“I categorize that statement as double hearsay, made by a person paid by Fuller’s team, quoting someone who was not subpoenaed to testify,” Faia said.
Fuller and Daniels later said they didn’t subpoena the witness because she fears for her safety.
An attorney for the Smith family, Peter Thomson, declined to comment on the allegations about Ceravolo taking a gun.
But he said “Rockie” - the nickname for Racquel Smith - is “very pleased with the indictment. We’re confident once all the facts and evidence come out before a trial jury, the defendant will be convicted on all counts.”
The indictment was returned to Criminal District Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier, who set bail for Hayes at a total of $1.75 million.
Fuller told Buras that he expects to file a motion to reduce that amount for Hayes, a former standout high school football player at Warren Easton who went on to play for the Crescent City Kings, of the Gridiron Developmental Football League.
Hayes’ lone criminal conviction stemmed from a 2010 arrest during a traffic stop in which police turned up a loaded handgun and pills. He pleaded guilty to a pair of misdemeanors.
Staff writer Matt Sledge contributed to this story.
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