Cardell Hayes, the man who shot Saints lineman Will Smith to death in the heat of a confrontation after a traffic collision a year ago in the Lower Garden District, was sentenced Thursday to 25 years in prison. 

Criminal District Court Judge Camille Buras handed down the sentence after a day and a half of emotional testimony from Hayes, Will Smith’s widow and family members on both sides.

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It brought near to its conclusion a legal drama that has consumed public attention in New Orleans since it began on the night of April 9, 2016.

Hayes, 29, was convicted in December of manslaughter for killing Smith and attempted manslaughter for wounding his wife. He faced between 20 and 60 years in prison.

Buras said before imposing her sentence that she was “left with how profoundly sad and tragic this case is, that three children now have lost their father, a wife has lost her husband, and a family their cherished loved one.”

The judge said she believed the shooting resulted from “circumstances unlikely to recur.” Yet she added that the traffic confrontation did not “warrant what happened to Mr. Smith and Ms. Smith.”

Buras gave Hayes credit for the year in jail he already has served. However, she said the sentence would be served without the benefit of probation or parole. With so-called “good time” credit, Hayes could be released after serving 85 percent of the sentence, or roughly 20 years.

Hayes was sentenced to 25 years on the manslaughter count and 15 years on the attempted manslaughter count, with the terms to run concurrently. He could have received 40 years on the first and an additional 20 on the second. 

Racquel Smith, Smith’s widow and the mother of his three children, assailed the judge’s decision in a statement. Prosecutors, who had pushed for the 60-year maximum, also expressed disappointment.

“My family and I are extremely disappointed with today’s sentencing and the leniency showed by Judge Buras for the defendant," Smith's statement read.

"While we know nothing will ever bring Will back, we were hopeful that Judge Buras would have issued a stronger sentence to more justly reflect both the nature of the crimes and the tremendous loss and pain that my family has suffered as a result of Mr. Hayes’ violent actions,” Smith said.

Hayes hung his head but said nothing as Buras announced the sentence. Afterward, his two defense attorneys, John Fuller and Jay Daniels, said the sentence “underscores" how complex the facts of the case were.

“This wasn't a run of the mill, shoot 'em up, bang-bang murder case," said Daniels, who delivered the defense’s closing argument during the sentencing hearing. 

The sentence, he said, showed that Buras "recognizes my client isn't the monster that folks have portrayed him to be.” 

One of Hayes' most loyal supporters — the father of his girlfriend — dismissed the notion that a punishment well below the 60-year maximum was something to be grateful for.

"He should've done no time," said Joe LaCroix, insisting that Hayes killed Smith only to protect his own life, just as his defense team argued at the trial. 

Prosecutors had urged Buras to “go high” in sentencing Hayes, arguing that he had failed to take responsibility for his crime when he claimed on the stand that Will Smith fired first.

Assistant District Attorney Laura Cannizzaro Rodrigue said during her sentencing argument that the court should punish Hayes for being untruthful. “To reward a person for taking the stand and lying is egregious,” she said.

“We ask this judge to go high, to stand by Racquel Smith … that her sitting here taking this for so long not be in vain,” Rodrigue said.

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Meanwhile, one legal issue remains in the case, aside from appeals. Prosecutors severed a charge of aggravated assault with a firearm against Hayes before his December trial, meaning that they reserved the right to try him later on that count. Buras set a June 26 trial date on the charge.

Aggravated assault with a firearm can carry up to 10 years in prison in Louisiana.

The sentencing capped off more than a day of emotional testimony. The prosecution’s witnesses spoke Wednesday, and Hayes’ supporters pleaded for leniency on Thursday.

At one point during her testimony, Racquel Smith locked eyes with Hayes and asked him to come clean about the night he shot her and her 34-year-old husband. Hayes has maintained that he shot only in self-defense and claims not to know who shot Racquel Smith.

“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.”

After Fuller called Hayes to the stand, his first words were addressed to the family of the man he killed. Hayes said he knows their pain because New Orleans police officers killed his mentally disturbed 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 in the courtroom, Hayes said he feared that he won't be released until his boy 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 No. 1 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 the judge's chambers briefly so that he could regain his composure.

However, on cross-examination, Assistant District Attorney Jason Napoli sought to show that Hayes’ remorse was less than truly felt. He reminded Hayes that Racquel Smith had pleaded in her testimony the day before for Hayes to tell the truth.

Hayes did not back down from his claims at the trial that he killed the ex-Super Bowl champion to protect himself and 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.”

Racquel Smith showed few signs of emotion as Hayes spoke. But after he left the stand, she turned to her sister and shook her head.

Also after Hayes spoke, the mother of his young son, Tiffany LaCroix, testified that he was a dutiful father who made his son breakfast every day and took him to school.

She said Hayes was deeply affected by his own father’s time in prison and then his sudden death at the hands of police.

“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,” 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’ 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, who owned a tow-truck business and played semi-professional football.

“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 the situation he was in.

“Lock me up," she said. "I feel like I failed my baby. ... The city has failed my son. Not only today, but they failed him when they took his daddy from us. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. ... I’ll be punished for his crime! Please take me!” 

Editor's note: This story was altered on April 21, 2017, to reflect that Cardell Hayes will have to serve 85 percent of his 25-year sentence. 

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432

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