NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A court on Wednesday rejected an appeal by the man convicted of killing former Saints football star Will Smith during a traffic altercation, rejecting claims that Cardell Hayes acted in self-defense.
Hayes is serving a 25-year sentence for manslaughter in the shooting death of Smith and attempted manslaughter in the wounding of Smith's wife. The shooting happened in April 2016 as Smith and his wife and friends were driving through a New Orleans neighborhood after leaving a sushi restaurant.
Hayes insisted at trial that he fired after a drunk, angry Smith retrieved a gun from his car and fired first, but he was convicted in a 10-2 decision. His lawyer argued on appeal that Hayes acted in self-defense and that evidence that surfaced after the trial lent credibility to his assertion.
But in their unanimous opinion, the three-member panel of judges rejected those claims and said the "evidence presented at trial was sufficient" to convict.
They wrote that the state "presented convincing evidence that Smith had retreated from the altercation."
"A rational juror could have found that Defendant's claim that he was in imminent danger of being killed was unreasonable, and that killing Smith was not necessary to prevent whatever harm Defendant thought he faced," the court wrote.
The court also dismissed the new evidence presented by the defense that they said supported Hayes' self-defense claim.
Defense attorney Paul Barker argued that trial judge Camille Buras should have granted a new trial because a witness who contacted the defense a day after Hayes' conviction said he had heard gunfire from two weapons at the time of the shooting.
The witness, military veteran Michael Burnside, delivered rambling and at times profane testimony at a post-trial hearing last year, and prosecutors argued that he wasn't credible.
The appeals court agreed.
"We find that Burnside's testimony is unreliable and contradicted by eyewitness testimony and the physical evidence," the judges wrote.
Smith, a 34-year-old father of three, was a defensive leader on the Saints team that lifted spirits in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. He helped carry the team to a winning season in 2006 and a Super Bowl victory four years later.
Former Saint Deuce McAllister spoke of Smith's sterling reputation among his teammates and friends during Hayes' trial, and Hayes' defense team argued in their appeal that they should have been allowed to introduce evidence about Smith's arrest on a domestic abuse charge.
Smith was arrested outside a southwest Louisiana bar in 2011 on misdemeanor charges of domestic abuse battery and public intoxication. Lafayette Parish prosecutors dropped the charges in 2012 after Smith completed community service and participated in counseling.
But the appeals court wrote that argument was not merited and even if the court did err in excluding testimony about Smith's arrest, it paled in comparison to the "overwhelming eyewitness, expert, and physical evidence presented at trial."
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro praised the court's decision.
"I am very pleased with this unequivocal ruling by the appellate court affirming the convictions and sentence of Cardell Hayes. There was no justification for the brutal killing of Will Smith over a traffic dispute three years ago, and his widow Racquel has today expressed her gratitude for our defense of the trial outcome and the 4th Circuit's decision," he said.
"We will continue our efforts as needed to ensure that Mr. Hayes serves the complete sentence imposed for his criminal acts," he said.
Hayes was 29 when he was convicted in December 2016. He owned a tow-truck business, had played semi-pro football and is the father of a young son.
His lawyer, Paul Barker, called the court's decision disappointing and said he'll ask the full 4th Circuit to hear the appeal.
"We were hoping for a far different outcome," he said. But said he spoken to Hayes' family and told them the case was "far from over."
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