The Will Smith murder case was far from the only one scheduled for trial on the morning of Dec. 5, when 130 potential jurors crammed into the pews of an Orleans Parish courtroom for the event of the year.
Up the hall at Criminal District Court, William Bonham was slated to stand trial in the stabbing death of Kent "Frenchy" Brouillette, a mob character from the days of New Orleans Mafia godfather Carlos Marcello.
Taryn Blume, a public defense investigator, was set for trial downstairs on a 2-year-old allegation that she impersonated a District Attorney's Office staffer while working on a rape case.
And Christopher Lee, another accused murderer, was slated to be retried that morning, too, nine months after a jury deadlocked over his role in a brutal home attack in 2010 that left Chad Huth dead in his Gentilly bathroom and a pal, Christopher Wells, scarred from bullet wounds.
Like the others, Lee's trial was shelved. Judge Arthur Hunter set it for a Feb. 3 hearing to entertain a challenge by Lee's public defenders to Louisiana's longstanding law allowing 10-2 guilty verdicts, like those Cardell Hayes would receive. It was Lee's fifth trial date since March.
The lead prosecutor, Laura Cannizzaro Rodrigue, was tied up for the week anyway, trying Hayes for the April killing of former Saints star Will Smith.
"I never take them at their word anymore when they give me a date," victim Christopher Wells said last week. "I've had stages with this. It was anger. Now it's kind of — I wouldn't say apathy — I just know I can't get my hopes up every time, because, more than likely, it'll be postponed."
His feeling of resignation was among the milder reactions to what some crime victims and their loved ones viewed as a streamlined path to justice, lubricated by celebrity, for the family of Smith, a beloved Super Bowl champion.
While hundreds of violent crime cases labor through repeated delays at Criminal District Court — more than a quarter of the open felony cases in Orleans Parish have sat for over a year — the Will Smith case reached a verdict in what appears to be record time in recent years.
The 16 murder cases that reached trial last year in the courthouse at Tulane Avenue and South Broad Street took an average of 3.2 years from arrest to verdict. The quickest took 721 days, according to data from District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office.
The verdict against Hayes came just 245 days after he was booked on a murder count in the early morning of April 10.
In 2014, the quickest homicide case to reach an Orleans Parish jury ended 385 days after indictment, with the average case taking 822 days, according to data from the Metropolitan Crime Commission. Hayes was found guilty just 227 days after his indictment.
"We’ve been waiting for a year. Will Smith's family waited for six months," said Kazanda Millon, whose son, Daniel Millon, was gunned down last December along with a friend, Vernon Lewis, allegedly for parking their motorcycles in the wrong spot.
No trial date has been set for the accused killer, Ahmad Rainey, and hearings on pretrial motions in the case have been delayed repeatedly.
"It's like a roller coaster," Kazanda Millon said of the numerous delays and her frequent requests for days off work since Rainey's indictment in February. She said family and friends had taken time off for a Dec. 13 court hearing that was pushed back to February at the state's request.
Millon figures that date also will be vacated because of Carnival parades and NBA All-Star Game festivities. "No police will be able to come to court," she predicted.
"Look at the Will Smith case. You did that in eight months. Now, Jefferson Parish is about to start on another case that just happened three weeks ago," she said, referring to the killing of another former NFL player, Joe McKnight. "To me, all murders should be high-profile, whether it's a pro football player or a regular human being. I'm just ready for it to get over, to get peace."
Rush to judgment?
While victims and their loved ones lament the plodding metabolism of the Orleans Parish justice system, defense advocates argue that speed doesn't equate to justice. A hasty prosecution can lead to false convictions, years of grinding appeals and more pain for the families of crime victims.
No such qualms were evident in the prosecution of Cardell Hayes, which played out in fast-forward from the start.
Addressing the jury, lead defense attorney John Fuller argued there had been a rush to judgment, decrying the mere 18 days it took Cannizzaro's office to secure an indictment against Hayes, halting a preliminary hearing already in progress. Fuller noted that the indictment came as the police investigation was still underway.
But after the verdicts, Cannizzaro said the quick indictment was a necessary countermeasure to avoid premature witness testimony at a hearing, granted by Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell at Fuller's request, that itself was hurried.
"For a preliminary hearing to be held in a murder case in 18 days is unheard of," the DA said. "It just doesn't happen that quickly."
From there, it was nearly full speed ahead. Judge Camille Buras set an initial Sept. 20 trial date, continued it once to Nov. 2 and then once more to early December, citing an officer's unavailability as the reason for the latter delay. Fuller made a faint bid to postpone the trial until after the Saints season, arguing it could prejudice the jury. Buras immediately denied it.
Cannizzaro's office, meanwhile, was quick to turn over evidence to Hayes' defense team, dispensing with the kind of belabored disclosures that often provoke delays.
Judges have no discretion in granting a delay if the state and defense jointly request one. But with Smith's killing still fresh in the minds of potential jurors, prosecutors weren't asking. And Buras, once a top deputy to former DA Harry Connick, wasn't waiting. She pushed for a speedy resolution to a case that was never a whodunit. Hayes didn't deny killing the former Saints star. It was only a question of why and whether his actions were legally justified.
"Usually, one side pressures the other side to slow down. In this case, both sides put it on the fast track," said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. "This is an example of what can be done if both sides decide to move quickly."
Fuller disputed that notion, however, suggesting Hayes' defense team was boxed into an early trial date.
"It wasn't the defense side. It wasn't us pushing the fast track," he said.
Whether the speed of the trial influenced the jury's verdict is uncertain, though prosecutors often describe time as an enemy. Memories fade. Witnesses grow restless or scared. Stories change.
An example to follow?
Simone Levine, executive director of Court Watch NOLA, which monitors the criminal courthouse, called the Hayes case an example of "how we should be proceeding" with the docket in every courtroom.
The quick indictment of Hayes, who has remained jailed since his arrest, was not unprecedented. Last year, Cannizzaro's office took just eight days to secure an indictment accusing Travis Boys of first-degree murder in the slaying of veteran New Orleans police officer Daryle Holloway inside his patrol car in June 2015.
Boys fled, sparking a daylong manhunt. The investigation, meanwhile, was troubled by the actions of a fellow officer, Wardell Johnson, who would eventually plead guilty to an obstruction charge for tossing a box of bullets — evidence from the scene of Boys' initial arrest — into a canal, then lying about it.
Holloway's mother, Olander Belfield-Holloway, said none of that adequately explains why the case against Boys remains in a holding pattern, with no trial date set.
She described Cannizzaro's statement after Hayes' conviction — calling Will Smith a hero and crediting current and former Saints players for packing the courtroom — as "a slap in the face to everyone else who's waiting for some kind of justice."
The message: "If you're not a Saint, not a high-profile person, we'll get to you when we get to you," she said. "I understand (the Boys case) is a capital murder case. I understand it's going to require a little more, but we're still in discovery. All I want is justice for my child. He may not have worn a Saints jersey. Those are not the only heroes in this world."
Cannizzaro's office issued a statement offering sympathy to Holloway's family while blaming delays on a series of motions filed by attorneys for Boys, who is on his third set of lawyers.
"It is inappropriate to compare this case to the case against Cardell Hayes — a case in which the prosecution, the defense and the court pushed for a quick resolution," the DA's statement read. "The case against Travis Boys is a capital murder case that is approximately 18 months old. Whether or not you believe that is too long, any attempt to attribute this delay to the prosecution … is simply untrue."
One of Boys' attorneys, William Sothern, also issued a statement about the pace of the case.
"Unlike Cardell Hayes, Travis Boys is facing the death penalty for the murder of Officer Daryle Holloway," it read. "We empathize with Olander Holloway and all who grieve Officer Holloway's death. However, there is no quick justice in capital cases, nor should there be."
The Hayes trial didn't stall another murder case that took place the same week. A different jury on Dec. 7 found Brandon Guidry guilty of murder in the March 2015 slaying of Bruce Tims outside a Bourbon Street hotel.
Tims' mother, Michelle Hunn, said she understood the bitterness over the pace of justice in Will Smith's killing, citing delays in her son's case, as well.
"I probably would have had the same feeling if my case wouldn't have been brought up," Hunn said.
"It tends to make you wonder what part made it easier for them to pull that case quicker. It's horrible to say that celebrity status would do that, but it looks like it does."
Katy Reckdahl contributed to this story.