For New Orleans criminal defense attorney John Fuller, the Will Smith murder trial began about 8 a.m. on April 10, a Sunday, with a text message that flashed on his phone.
It was from the ex-girlfriend of Cardell Hayes, a local tow-truck driver.
Fuller knew Hayes through his pastor, he said. He had once helped Hayes get a felony gun conviction reduced to a misdemeanor — a move that allowed Hayes to legally carry a gun.
But this time Hayes, 29, was in jail on a murder charge, accused of gunning down Smith, a popular former Saints defensive lineman, after a three-car crash on a Lower Garden District street, and of pumping two .45-caliber bullets into the legs of Smith's wife, Racquel.
Hayes' mug shot — in dreadlocks, shaggy beard and dashiki — splayed across the news, locally and nationally.
"He was being figuratively hung," Fuller recalled in a recent interview. "His mom was on the phone with me that morning. That helped a lot. His family didn't wait. I know Cardell Hayes. I thought it right he had a voice out there as well."
Fuller quickly got in front of the TV cameras and went on the offensive, aiming to beat back the depiction of Hayes by Peter Thomson, the Smith family's attorney, as an "enraged," "cold-blooded murderer" who had stood over Smith's body, shouting.
And that's where Fuller stayed, attacking the police investigation and jockeying for public sympathy, working a spotlight that will amp up again this week for a case that has drawn headlines around the country.
Jury selection is slated to begin Monday in the most anticipated New Orleans murder trial in years. It comes less than eight months after police found Smith's body slumped over his steering wheel, shot eight times — seven to the back.
"It was tragic. It was horrible, actually," Fuller said of the killing on Sophie Wright Place.
Fuller and his co-counsel, Jay Daniels, are set to launch an aggressive self-defense claim for Hayes, buttressed by accusations that police manipulated the investigation to shield the legacy of a beloved Super Bowl champion.
Fuller acknowledges that one of his gambits in the case — a call for the New Orleans Police Department to recuse itself from the case — was largely PR, meant to burnish the argument.
"I rarely wing it. Is it tactical? Some of it is," he said. "But we know it's not like any other case, because the Police Department didn't treat it like any other case, and the DA didn't treat it like any other case."
And while Fuller maintains that the trial itself won't be so different from others he's handled over the past 15 years, he acknowledges an extra spark.
Since Smith's shooting, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro has spread word that Fuller is unethical -- allegations raised in an unusual, 200-page dossier claiming evidence of repeated and dangerous meddling with state witnesses.
Fuller was forced to admit to one such ethical breach during a murder trial in May. Yet he described the leaked report as a smear campaign meant to dim his public image leading up to the Hayes trial.
Asked if the attack motivated him, Fuller bowed his head and murmured, "It does. A lot."
The bulls-eye Cannizzaro's office has trained on him seems to have done little to dampen business for Fuller, who may be the city's busiest criminal defense attorney.
On a recent evening, he stepped into his office suite in a Poydras Street high-rise to find suspected felons and their kin — a combination of new and repeat clients — scattered across the waiting room.
He ambled toward his office in a navy blue striped suit, a crisp white shirt with "Not Guilty" stitched on the cuff and, his secretary suggested, a hint of red lipstick on his mouth.
Fuller, who is 43 and never married, argued misidentification: He blamed a peppermint.
A young man took a seat at Fuller's desk. Officers had stopped him in his girlfriend's car and turned up marijuana, an ecstasy pill and a stolen pistol. With a prior felony conviction, he faced up to 20 years.
Fuller, who began practicing law as a public defender in 2001, swept for land mines: Any damning images of guns or drugs posted on Facebook or Instagram? Anything divulged in recorded phone calls from jail?
"Let me ask you this: What kind of weed?" he continued.
"It was 'Mardi Gras.' It's like a happy weed," the suspect replied, adding, "Only way you can smell it is when you open the box."
Fuller glanced up from his notepad.
"If we can convince (the judge) they took it in an improper fashion, she could suppress the evidence, in which case you win. If not ... we'll set it for trial," Fuller said before settling on a $5,500 flat fee.
"You can tell I've been dealing with them a long time, so I know how they lie," he said.
In front of a jury, Fuller's indignation — almost always aimed at police or prosecutors — erupts in guttural outbursts that border on fury. It's made-for-TV drama in a state that bars courtroom cameras.
It's not an act, Fuller insists.
"You got to remember, I was raised in a Baptist church, not a Catholic church. Not a Methodist church," Fuller said. "I was raised in a black Baptist church around a lot of family — five brothers and sisters. If I was to talk in a normal tone, my voice would be drowned out."
His disdain for bad policing came later.
'Always kind of fearless'
"The first time I really had my eyes opened was when the Rodney King video came out," said Fuller, who was 17 at the time of the infamous Los Angeles police beating.
"When I see an officer clearly lying, clearly treating people like crap, I'm offended. Sometimes people are amazed at how aggressive I can be. As officers, you know what you're supposed to be. When I see a police officer, I see my dad."
Fuller was born in Georgia, the son of a math teacher and an Atlanta police lieutenant, who split up when he was young. In 1991, he was home on break from Jackson State University when his father was killed in a car crash on Thanksgiving night, he said.
He enrolled at Loyola Law School, never considering anything but criminal law, he said.
"When I saw lawyers, I saw guys like (TV's) Matlock, Perry Mason. My impression of a lawyer was a guy who went to court and fought for his clients," Fuller said.
Fuller's lone criminal blemish came during that time. It was for doing the very thing that now pays his bills and fills his home with racks of colorful tailored threads: He upbraided New Orleans police officers.
Fuller said he was carousing with friends in a Carrollton bar when he was booked for being drunk in public and interfering with an arrest.
"This guy was in the bar and the cops came in and were roughing him up. They just kind of manhandled him," he said.
Fuller followed the officers outside, he said, whipped out his student law ID card and challenged the cops. "I talked a lot of trash on the way to jail," he said, flashing a grin. "I've always been kind of fearless."
'Yelling and screaming'
After he met Hayes in jail on the Sunday morning after his arrest, Fuller, a devout Christian, went to church, he said.
A deacon at New Zion Baptist Church in Central City, where he once introduced Cannizzaro as a Laymen's Day speaker, Fuller listens to Scripture on a CD player as he drives. His law firm associate, Gregory Carter, said Fuller often texts him Bible passages in the wee hours.
"It's easy to see the suits and the flash or hear the yelling out," Carter said. "But when you think about how many people he's freed, how many he's helped, he's just extremely humble about what he's done."
Fuller rarely turns down a paying client, though he said he could not represent an officer who shot an unarmed man, describing the scenario as "the ultimate betrayal."
He has gone to bat for some brutal criminals, won some surprising acquittals that have burnished his status around the courthouse, and earned a few detractors in the process.
In January, Fuller and Carter defended Charles Carter Jr. — no relation — at a trial in which their client was convicted in a bloody string of attacks during a 2012 armed robbery binge.
Charles Carter and two others left Uptown lawyer Sanford "Sandy" Kaynor paralyzed from two gunshots suffered in his Camp Street driveway. Then, 17 days later, Carter and another juvenile killed Valan May, a 24-year-old college student and U.S. Navy veteran, before Carter and another boy took their dates to a black-dress theme party.
Kaynor's wife, Grace Kaynor, herself a trained lawyer, was less than impressed with what she described as an over-the-top defense of Charles Carter, who is now serving 362 years.
"I absolutely believe everybody has a right to counsel. What I don't like is the grandstanding, the yelling and screaming. He threw everything but the kitchen sink at the judge," Kaynor said.
She accused Fuller of invoking racial discrimination against black youth in his appeal to the jury on Carter's behalf, even though May, the murder victim, was also black.
"It wasn't necessarily a brilliant legal mind at work. It's a screaming match, histrionics," Kaynor said. "It'd be like hiring a movie star to be a lawyer."
Fuller denied playing the race card at Carter's trial.
"I've never brought up race once in a case, period," he said. "I still am very sympathetic towards the Kaynors, and I still pray for that family."
Taming his aggression
Among admirers, Fuller has drawn comparisons to Johnnie Cochran, the deceased, Louisiana-born celebrity attorney best known for springing O.J. Simpson in his 1995 murder trial.
Aside from their shared short stature — Fuller is a stocky 5 feet, 7 inches — Fuller doesn't see it.
"Johnnie wasn't as fiery as people think he was," he said. "If you watch his closing argument in O.J., he didn't get loud, and that's not like me. I'm a little more animated. Johnnie was a lot smoother than me, and he dressed better."
Fuller said he's tried to tame his courtroom aggression, or at least unleash it more selectively.
"At one point it was a bludgeon-to-death approach. I think when I was a young lawyer I was guilty of kind of taking advantage of the disdain that a lot of New Orleanians have for police," he said. "And that was successful. But over the years, what happens is you become friends with some of them, and you realize they're not bad people, the majority of them. What they can be guilty of is conducting bad investigations."
Kevin Boshea, a veteran New Orleans criminal defense attorney who has worked with Fuller, said he sees an evolution.
"Certainly, John Fuller 2.0 is quite effective," Boshea said, "judging by the verdicts."
This year, Fuller and Carter have won a pair of improbable acquittals together in Orleans Parish murder trials while going up against the two seasoned prosecutors who will seek this week to convict Hayes: Laura Cannizzaro Rodrigue and Jason Napoli.
In late September, Fuller persuaded a jury during a two-hour closing argument that his client, Charity Nguyen, didn't plot her husband's murder with her lover — who is doing 35 years for the killing.
Among other things, Fuller managed to explain away his client's own duplicity, in an array of conflicting statements she gave to authorities and her own family.
After the jury retired to deliberate, Fuller said, he sat in the jury box with Napoli, "witnessing to him about Jesus."
The jury acquitted Nguyen on all counts, in a verdict that few court watchers expected.
"I didn't know John before at all. I heard of his story. Before the verdict came out, I went up and told him, whatever it is, I felt he did everything (he could have done) as an attorney," said Cindy Nguyen, the defendant's sister and a community organizer in New Orleans East.
"They sat down with Charity for many, many days, a lot of background work, and I think that's why. He's equipped with information, and he knows how to use it."
Putting in extra hours
Earlier this year, a month after Cardell Hayes rested a warm gun on his orange Hummer H2 and waited for police to arrive after Will Smith's shooting, Fuller and Carter won freedom for a Baton Rouge man in a 2010 French Quarter killing, though their client's DNA was on the murder weapon.
During that trial, Fuller and Carter did some less savory background work. They went to the Orleans Parish jail and spoke to two witnesses against their client — co-defendants who had testified against him, claiming they had received no promises or expectation of leniency.
Those meetings came without the consent of their attorneys, a clear violation of ethics rules for lawyers.
The misdeed has yet to result in discipline, but it apparently sparked Cannizzaro's office to investigate and compile the July report that alleged another four similar violations — including one claim that Fuller endangered the safety of a confidential informant.
Fuller claims the DA's investigators solicited false statements to drum up dirt on him, though he admits to the improper jail visit in the murder case.
Fuller said he had listened to jail tapes in which one of his client's co-defendants said he was assured he'd be freed days after his testimony, despite his claim on the stand.
"I lose my mind. I literally am shaking with anger, and I'm sweating, and my heart's racing. I'm going to the jail to see my client. It was almost spontaneous: Let me call down two of them and just ask them about it," Fuller said. "That's probably one of the decisions that I regret the most as a defense attorney, because I didn't have to do it."
Fuller said he recalled a time when he found a friend in Cannizzaro, who was a judge when Fuller broke in as a public defender.
He recalls bonding with Cannizzaro in a quiet courtroom on the morning of 9/11 and later talking sports, religion and client deals during leisurely confabs inside the DA's office.
"He knows me," Fuller said.
But clearly that relationship has soured.
"I don't have animus toward him. I still pray for him. I pray that he grows closer to Christ. I pray for his daughter," Fuller said. "I pray that they find a good job in four years."
A spokesman for Cannizzaro's office did not respond to a request for comment about the DA's relationship with Fuller.
Over the summer, Fuller pressed Criminal District Judge Camille Buras to delay the Hayes trial until after the Saints football season, arguing that the emotions of the season could taint the jury pool. Buras declined.
But in his office last week, Fuller — a diehard Falcons fan — said he's never been concerned that Hayes won't get a fair trial.
"We certainly are putting a few extra hours into jury selection," he said. "There are a lot of minds made up on this case, and they're not all what they initially were."