In shackles and handcuffs, Cardell Hayes took the stand Thursday and told the family of Will Smith that he wishes the April 2016 night when he shot and killed the former Saints star had never happened.
But as Hayes faces down his sentencing, which could happen as soon as Thursday afternoon in the courtroom of Orleans Criminal District Court Judge Camille Buras, he repeated his claims at trial that he only acted in self-defense.
After a recess, the hearing was scheduled to come back at 2:15 p.m. for short statements and then sentencing.
Follow below -- or click here -- to follow live updates from court. (recap continues below).
“I didn’t stand over Will and pump seven shots into his back, like the theory that you all came with,” Hayes said. “I was never the aggressor.”
Attorney John Fuller has consistently sought to portray Hayes as an ordinary man who has been subjected to a justice system where the scales are tipped for the rich and powerful like Will Smith.
On Wednesday, Hayes had his request for a new trial denied by Criminal District Court Judge Camille Buras after unusual testimony by an eccentric Army veteran named Michael Burnside, who claims he heard two guns firing on the night Smith was killed. That account directly contradicts the narrative presented by prosecutors, who maintained throughout the trial that Hayes was the only one who fired a gun on April 9, 2016.
Hayes, 29, was convicted of manslaughter for killing Smith and attempted manslaughter for wounding his wife in December. His testimony came on the second day of pre-sentencing testimony. Buras can sentence him to between 20 and 60 years in prison.
After defense attorney John Fuller called Hayes to the stand, his first words were addressed to the family of the man he killed. Hayes said he knows his pain because New Orleans police officers killed his father in 2005.
“I want to speak to the kids of Will, and I want to let you all know and tell you that I understand what you’re going through,” Hayes said. “I don’t have to imagine. I know what it’s like to not have a father be there. That was something that I fear most for my son, not to be here for him.”
With his young son Cardell “CJ” Hayes Jr. present, Hayes said he feared that he would be released when his son is an old man.
“At the end of the day, it’s like I’m dead anyway. I’m not here for my son. And that’s number one to me, being here for him,” Hayes said.
Hayes hunched over and sobbed as he spoke about his mother having to see him in shackles. From the gallery, she wept as well. Deputies led Hayes away to chambers briefly so that he could regain his composure.
However, on cross-examination Assistant District Attorney Jason Napoli sought to show that Hayes’s remorse was less than full-hearted. He reminded Hayes that Racquel Smith had pleaded in her testimony Wednesday for Hayes to tell the truth about shooting her.
“You shot me, there was no one else, there was no tussle between me and my husband like you said,” Racquel Smith said. “All I asked of you is to tell the truth. Tell the truth.”
Hayes did not back down from his claims at trial that he only shot Will Smith in self-defense, and that he never intentionally shot Racquel Smith.
“I never physically pointed my gun at Racquel and shot Racquel,” Hayes said.
“These tears are for yourself, right?” Napoli asked.
“No, these tears are not for myself,” Hayes responded. “I would never just hurt someone just purposefully.”
Napoli again press Hayes, saying that he was essentially calling Racquel Smith a liar.
“I did not stand over Will and pump shots into his back like you said. Everything was quick. Everything happened so quickly,” Hayes said.
“Do you understand that that’s what you did to him?” Napoli said.
“I definitely apologize for their loss. I apologize for their loss. I apologize for their loss,” Hayes responded. “I can say it a million times, that I wish that night had never happened.”
Racquel Smith gave few signs of emotion as he spoke. But after he left the stand, she turned to her sister and shook her head.
Hayes’s testimony was followed by that a friend and fellow dog-breeder, his high school football coach, and his pastor, the Rev. Sha-Teek Nobles Sr. at the My Redeemer Missionary Baptist Church in Central City.
The mother of Hayes’s young son testified that he was a dutiful father who made his son breakfast every day and took him to school. Tiffany LaCroix testified that was deeply affected by his father’s time in prison then sudden death.
“When he was out, I think he saw his father a few times, and then Katrina hit, and then the horrible altercation or incident happened with the New Orleans Police Department and he was taken again, this time never to return,” LaCroix said.
LaCroix also revealed that moments after the shooting, Hayes called her to tell her he had just shot a man.
“I thought it was just a nightmare, I just didn’t know what was really going on,” she said. “The shriek, the tone of his voice, the pain, I just knew something had happened. He sounded just so afraid and he was so scared.”
The most emotional plea to the judge came from Hayes’s mother, Dawn Mumphrey, who has never before spoken in public about her son’s arrest and conviction. She broke down in tears as soon as she took the stand, and Fuller quickly asked the judge to let her daughter stand by her as she testified.
Mumphrey’s voice faltered as she explained how she had tried to raise her son.
“I wanted my child to be something other than just hanging on the street. And he was,” she said. “He’s a loving, caring protective person.”
Mumphrey said she never thought she would see her son in shackles.
“Don’t take my child from me!” Mumphrey pleaded. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. … I’ll be punished for his crime! Please take me!”