In the middle of Dixon Hall at Tulane University, on a dark stage, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu sighs before a tired crowd.
He’s done this so many times. So have they. There’s always a speech to give about the violence in this city.
New Orleans is sick, drunk on violence. If that was never understood before, it was clear on April 9, 2016 at 11:31 p.m. when Cardell Hayes tore open Will Smith’s body with eight hollow point bullets, seven to the back. And 18 days later, the day before Hayes would be indicted, Landrieu laments that this disease ravaging the Big Easy often prevents folks from remembering that there are two sides to every shooting.
“His death leaves a wife alone, his children without a father, his teammates in shock and a hole in the heart of a hurting city,” Landrieu said about Smith. “It has been rightly said about all these murders that tragedy is on both sides of the gun. In this case, on the other side of the gun is Cardell Hayes. He’s in jail. But he has a family, too. And a 5-year-old son.”
There is silence in the hall.
Will Smith was a football deity in a city starved for hope. He anchored a defense that delivered a Super Bowl on the heels of Hurricane Katrina. Smith is a symbol for a team that accomplished the impossible when good never felt like a reality in New Orleans. He was a football phenom that mattered to this football-fevered city.
He was beloved by politicians. He befriended cops. He was a philanthropist. When a man of his stature gets killed, people rush to his defense and to his story.
But here’s the reality of that night in April: Two men, two outsized New Orleans personalities, had a bad night that escalated in the worst possible way. People aren’t made in absolutist terms. No man is really a saint. Those killed aren’t rendered wholly good by death just as those who take a life aren’t necessarily in a perpetual state of evil. That’s not human nature.
When you live in Louisiana, where nearly half of the households in the state own guns and gun homicide rates are three times higher than the national average, you can’t expect that those carrying won’t fire when provoked. That’s not human nature either.
Not for Will Smith, the man painted as an immortal, and not for Cardell Hayes, the man rendered a ruthless vigilante.
That telling is only half the story.
“One life lost, many more lives changed forever, swallowed by a cycle of violence that came and went so fast it was almost a dream or in this case a nightmare,” Landrieu said, disrupting the peace in the auditorium.
“And a city is left to wonder why.”
The man who shot Will Smith to death was just trying to get home that night. That’s something he really wants you to know. This was before the three-car crash, before some pudgy man ripped off his shirt and started swinging, and before one of the most fearsome defensive players New Orleans has ever seen spilled onto the concrete, dead.
You probably know him differently by now, though. Or at least you do by his mugshot: This 6′6, more than 300-pound black man — round-headed, a thumping beard and waving dreads — known as Cardell Hayes. His hood in the Ninth Ward calls him “Bear,” naturally. He looks like one.
On April 9 last year, the night he shot Smith, Hayes woke and sold his last pit bull puppy. “Bullies” as he calls them. He breeds them by the book; even does the artificial insemination himself. He played with his son, Cardell Hayes Jr., or CJ for short. Hayes ran some errands, went to football practice, and then hit his favorite neighborhood spot by night’s end.
Lance’s Barbershop sits down Ursulines Avenue in the Treme neighborhood. It’s a haven for Hayes, a calm place to ease his mind after a day driving a tow truck, dealing a pit, or pouring cement.
Dwight “Whitey” Harris frequently leapt on Hayes’ back when Hayes would enter, “It’s like man versus Bear,” Whitey says. “When I attacked him he picked me up by my ankles.”
Lance Rouzan usually orders some extra-large pizzas while barbers trim heads. It’s frequently busy. Late night Saturdays in New Orleans tend to get like that.
A pocket in Hayes’ jeans vibrates. Kevin O’Neal, his best friend, had been calling all day. Rouzan and the boys saw his face crack a grin. “What’s going on?” one asked. House party. Uptown.
Some high school friends were having a get-together. Hayes would scope it out. He’d call if it was worth a drive.
It turned out to be a bust. Maybe 20 people showed and were playing Pictionary. It was lackluster enough to head home early.
The problem was that O’Neal rode to the function in Hayes’ Hummer. They had to go back to the shop to retrieve his truck. That much is indisputable. How the next part goes, though, depends entirely on whom you’re talking to.
Right after 11 p.m., the duo zoomed down Magazine Street. The Hummer jolted. A Mercedes SUV was behind them. Hayes pulled over. The Mercedes sped away. The Hummer drove after it. Maybe Hayes could get the license plate. He had already been in an accident once, and insurance ain’t cheap.
Hayes will tell you he tried to call 911 while chasing the Mercedes. The prosecution insists Hayes is a liar. Hayes says he tried to pump his brakes during the chase but accidentally hit the car. The prosecution says he rammed that SUV.
A man named Richard Hernandez exited the passenger’s side of the Mercedes. Hayes says he didn’t leave his car until Hernandez charged at him and ripped off his shirt. Prosecutors reluctantly agree. Hayes also says Hernandez wrapped a “shiny object” in the shirt and swung at him. Prosecutors say Hernandez wasn’t the aggressor.
The contested points of that night haven’t found any resolution in the months since. You’ve probably heard different versions of these depending on which lawyer’s mouth said it. How Hernandez’s actions made Hayes get his gun. How Hayes claims Smith hit him “three or four times” in the face. And how, maybe, the Smith party taunted him for not using that pistol.
“Nigga, you got your gun? Well I’m gonna get mine and I’m gonna show you what to do with it,” Hayes, under oath, recalls Smith yelling.
“What else can I think other than he’s trying to kill me?” Hayes says. Still, at that point, Hayes hadn’t drawn. Smith started fighting with his wife, Racquel. She pulled him from the scuffle. She reminded him of their kids waiting at home: Lisa, Wynter, and Will Jr.
The Smith family finally reached its vehicle. The Hernandez family had run away. Will Smith then reached into his car. The whines of police sirens are about to blare down Felicity and Sophie Wright Place.
Hayes raised his pistol while he begged Smith not to grab his gun.
“Please don’t do this, bruh,” he can be heard saying on video from last summer entered as evidence. “Please, please don’t do this.”
Racquel shrieked in the direction of her husband. “No, baby, no.” Hayes insists that he didn’t wanna pop this guy.
“I didn’t have nowhere to run,” Hayes says. “If I turned and run, I’ll get shot and killed”
Hayes saw the man turn. A bang. Hayes released eight shots. As the smoke cleared, bystanders could only see a giant crying next to a dead body. He bellowed into the night, praying an ambulance would answer his calls.
Across town, Nandi Campbell’s phone started ringing. The lawyer got a midnight call from bounce artist Big Freedia. Hayes made national news. Homicide by shooting. Road rage turned murder in New Orleans. Somebody had to go find Freedia’s cousin.
Campbell saw Hayes in a police interview room and told him for the first time that Smith, a Super Bowl champion, was the man he killed. Hayes couldn’t believe it. He used to watch Smith’s game tapes and study his moves as budding defensive lineman. He idolized him.
Hayes crumpled next to Campbell.
“My life over with,” Hayes said. “They gonna make me look like I shot and killed this man. I looked up to Will as a football player.”
“No, baby. Ya life not over,” Campbell said in a New Orleans drawl, placing a hand on his back. “Don’t say that.”
Hayes is not innocent in the realm of moral court. He killed a man and may have maimed a woman. But Hayes isn’t denying that he killed someone — he’s arguing that he was within his right to do so.
The state of Louisiana wants Hayes to fry on the plantation fields of Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary. That has become evident over the 246 days between the killing and Hayes’ conviction.
That might seem like an eternity. But not many people in New Orleans have seen a man go down as fast and surgically as Hayes. In 2015, there were 16 murder trials in Orleans Parish. The average time from arrest to trial was 3.2 years. The shortest was two years.
Hayes was arrested overnight. He was indicted in 18 days. He received a bond near $2 million an hour after. He was sent to trial eight months later. Then he was convicted after a six-day trial under the first sequestered jury in over four years in a parish that couldn’t afford it. That’s how much the state wanted justice for Will Smith.
Attorney Peter Thomson, who represents Smith’s family, said days after the killing that Hayes was a “cold-blooded murderer,” that he intentionally rammed the Mercedes, that he was “deranged.” New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison said hours after the killing that the NOPD vowed to “build a strong case,” allowing the prosecution of Hayes to be done to the “fullest extent of the law.”
Saints quarterback Drew Brees spoke for five uninterrupted minutes on his former teammate’s death. He called the violence an “epidemic.” He said he thinks the young men feel like they have been abandoned, or are lacking family, or are lacking a father. At one moment it was drugs. At another, it was gang violence. He was sad for New Orleans, and angry at New Orleans, and taking wild swings at making sense of it.
“What that tells me is that the person who’s pulling the trigger in many cases has no regard for the life that he’s about to try to take,” Brees said. “He also has no regard for his own life, because there’s consequences with that and they have to recognize those consequences.”
New Orleans head coach Sean Payton said “our city is broken” the same week because his former player got killed, and he even called for an end to guns.
Defense attorney John Fuller presented himself as the only man with a difference in opinion. Hayes retained the up-and-comer who took the high-publicity case to bolster his own practice and profile, delaying a criminal court judgeship in the process. In Fuller, Hayes had a gem, one of the most intimidating, eloquent, problematic, God-fearing black defense lawyers the South has to offer — or at least one who didn’t mind leaning into that role.
Fuller got to work quickly, spoon-feeding the city a defense based on a vice familiar to New Orleans: corruption. It was evident in the investigation of Hayes’ case, or at least, that’s what Fuller was selling. And to sell that, he needed a big audience. So he started his months-long sermon in the pulpit of the media.
“Cardell Hayes,” Fuller said to gathered TV cameras on a dreary April afternoon four days after the shooting, “was tried and convicted before I got out of church Sunday morning.”
In the eight months Hayes spent behind bars awaiting trial, not many cared to look into the man behind the late-night mugshot or the man he killed. The Saints lost a soldier from their defensive line. All anyone knew was that some rogue gunslinger killed him in cold blood.
Stray blogs said Hayes did security for the Saints, which was never true. USA Today said his “bullies” are “loyal, protective and potentially dangerous—characteristics that apparently Hayes shares.” Sports Illustrated capitalized off that rhetoric, running a story titled “The Saint v. ‘The Thug.’” Tyrann Mathieu, an NFL defensive back and former prep star here, said on Twitter that April that Hayes was a “hating ass coward.”
“Everyone starts on the side of the Saints,” Derwyn Bunton, New Orleans’ chief public defender said. “The sentiment, overwhelmingly, was that folks assumed Mr. Hayes was some hot-head thug that killed a beloved member of the community.”
Racquel Smith’s husband was that beloved member of the community.
“I don’t want sympathy,” Racquel said during trial. “I want justice for my husband … He loved New Orleans. He loved the people and the community and he did so much for the community. We loved it because we both came from humbling beginnings. It was us.”
“Would you exaggerate or leave out parts of what would happen to preserve the memory of your husband?” Fuller asked her on the stand.
“No, sir,” she said.
“Would you do anything to save his public image?” Fuller said.
“No,” she said before circling back. “I know the truth.”
Racquel Smith testified that she didn’t believe her husband had a temper, though it was reported in 2010 that he dragged her by her hair out of a Lafayette, Louisiana, nightclub. She says she doesn’t remember how much he’d drank, but on the night Smith was killed, blood tests showed he was three times past the legal alcohol limit.
Will Smith died with gunpowder residue on his hands. Of the two bullets that hit Racquel, one bullet’s origin can’t be conclusively proven — it’s still embedded in her leg. She testified that a doctor told her it was too risky to remove. But no one attempted to either prove her claim or negate that claim. Her testimony went unchallenged.
Presented with a chance to finally dispute the corruption narrative that Fuller fed the media — that the case had been manipulated to get quick justice for the local celebrity — Racquel didn’t waver. She told you. She didn’t want empathy. She just wanted justice. Regardless if, like she admits, she never saw the person who shot her.
If it’s worth anything, though, she swears it was Hayes.
“No one sympathized for me. He was putting lies about my family,” Racquel said.
“You are reading all these horrible things, that are false, and you don’t say a word?” a prosecutor asked.
“Yes, ma’am.” Racquel said.
“Did you wait to tell these ladies and gentlemen of the jury your story?” the prosecutor asked.
“Yes ma’am,” Racquel said.
“Is this the first time anyone showed any sympathy for your case?” the prosecutor asked.
“Absolutely,” Racquel said.
Hayes made his home deep in the Ninth Ward, a place plastered on network news during Katrina when the levees broke. His last known residence leads you down Morrison Road, in New Orleans East.
It’s a fleeting oasis here, narrowly missed by tornados that struck nearby in early February 2017. Small homes with overgrown bushes dot opposite sides of the canals. It’s working class renewal sprinkled amid desolation. A shotgun duplex here. An orange spray-painted X there.
Hayes’ house is big enough for him and his girlfriend, Tiffany, to raise CJ in. The neighborhood is lively. School kids yell and run down sidewalks in the afternoons. Girls in colorful barrettes hoot for “Angel” or “Rosie” or “Tyrell” or “Kevin.” It’s a normal hood for a middle-class family.
Down Crowder Boulevard there are a slew of gas stations and markets separating highway entrances from exits. You can get fried chicken by the bucket and gas past dusk. If you’re really hungry, a smaller stand by one gas pump sells fresh po-boys.
Ten minutes east, Hayes laced his cleats in Joe W. Brown Memorial Park. He played for the Crescent City Kings, a development team the papers don’t even waste ink on. Plenty remember “Bear” as CJ’s father, Dawn Mumphrey’s son, Genitra Mumphrey’s brother, a familiar face at Lance’s, a football star from Warren Easton High School, a businessman, and much more.
Leonard Brooks, 42, helped raise the boy from these blocks. Brooks, who says he’s Hayes’ uncle, has been choked up by the proceedings. Hayes is a churchgoing boy, he says, a role model to Brooks’ other, younger family members. No one’s denying he killed Smith. But few seem to recognize that this may have been self-defense.
“All they want to do is bury my nephew,” Brooks said. “As God as my witness, I would trade places with him so he can be with his family because, I know, in my heart, he was protecting himself.”
Bryant Lee, a store owner, met “the real silent dude” at Thurgood Marshall Middle School. They went to college and sweated in football camps together.
Lee had a brother who got locked up way back. A middle-class man could go insane counting the bills. He asked Hayes for advice, and Hayes gave him $1,000. When Lee tried to return the money, Hayes laughed it off. You can’t give back a gift.
“That’s just not his character. He’s a loyal dude. He’s family-oriented and giving. He’ll give you his last,” Lee said about Hayes’ portrayal. “If I was in the situation, I would’ve done the same thing. Out here? It’s kill or be killed.”
Five years ago, Casandra French saw him at a brass band parade.
Hayes was introduced as “the man with the American bullies.” Her husband desperately wanted to get a litter together. They needed the extra cash. Hayes was big in the game. So he handed her husband a hound and stuck around to help get their litter together.
Soon they were doing inseminations. And their daughter got a scholarship to play second baritone at Alabama State. Due to his unasked kindness, she now has spending money.
“Because of him, now we’ve had six litters and that’s what keeps us going,” French said from the front seat of her car. “He was never a troublemaker. I just pray for the man. The glimpse I have of him is a very good person. To do what he did, he’d have to be pushed.”
Lamont Simmons met him on the gridiron at Victory Field. Simmons played a few steps behind him on defense. Hayes came on the team midseason a year or so ago. He learned the plays in two weeks and gave the team the lift it needed. Hayes’ push got the developmental gang to a championship game.
Between those lines, Simmons learned about “Bear.” He saw a doting father who brought CJ to practice and let his boy ride his shoulders and play in his dreads. He befriended a man who coached his son in pewee kickoffs and kissed him whenever he could. He understood the mild-mannered giant that “led by example” and broke up fights as Simmons threw haymakers at opposing offenses.
“He was a mediator, he was always calm, except during a double team,” Simmons recalls.
It’s the weight of all of this that momentarily had Joe Howard in knots on a bench outside one of the court hearings last year.
Howard went to high school with Hayes. His wife’s sister is a friend of the family.
“He doesn’t have that aggressive nature that was put out,” Howard said with a huff. “But that’s with anything. A black man goes to jail, the public sees the mugshot and you are automatically labeled.”
OPP is just a peek at the hell Angola offers.
The Life and Legend of Leadbelly describes Angola as a place that kneels defendants in courtrooms upon sentencing. It’s America’s largest maximum security facility where 85 percent of prisoners never leave. “One of 10 inmates” annually get shanked there, according to the book. It sits in the middle of nowhere on a bend by the Mississippi River. The only things around for miles are an airstrip, a rodeo, and a radio station.
This is what Hayes had been grappling with in the months leading up to trial. At worst, he’d stay caged in Angola on a life sentence for second-degree murder. It’s possible that in Louisiana — the only state besides Oregon where all 12 members of a jury don’t have to unanimously agree on murder — that he could’ve gotten a reduced sentence. Negligible homicide isn’t the worst bid for killing a football king down South. At least he’s alive.
At best, like his lawyers said, he’d go not guilty on all charges. He’d walk free after a few days of court. But with the way Hayes’ case was handled, that option seemed further away each passing month.
Parties surrounding the case didn’t understand why the defense was failing. Plenty thought the overconfident Fuller was to blame. One lawyer close to both the prosecution and Fuller said the defense attorney could have received bad information from his client.
“He looked kind of silly when he didn’t come out with [any] video,” the lawyer said after Fuller didn’t present additional evidence during a Nov. 7 hearing. Fuller had been publicly promising video evidence that Billy Ceravolo, a former NOPD captain and friend of Smith, moved a gun from Smith’s car. It was a key piece of the corruption narrative that titillated observers into thinking there’d be an actual showdown between the sides at trial.
Another lawyer, who is close to the defense team, walked around between the lulls of court and asked, “Why doesn’t he just show this video?!” before offering his smartphone, which replayed an inconclusive video of an unidentifiable man at the scene of the shooting. Fuller introduced no such video at trial in April, and Ceravolo explored bringing a defamation suit against him.
The prosecution hinted at those missteps during trial. They asked O’Neal, Hayes’ best friend, when he testified about comments he allegedly made describing Fuller as a “sell-out,” a “nobody,” harping on a feeling that family and friends expected Hayes home months ago. O’Neal didn’t hide it. He hated the legal system, Fuller, and the timeframe that kept his companion confined to a cage.
“I’m heartbroken and tore up,” O’Neal said. “It’s extremely OK for me to be emotional.”
If you’re Fuller, you want justice to work as slow as you remember, with no rush to judgment. He pleaded in court for months to move this trial back. Who could possibly get convicted eight months after killing a man?
“I cannot, in good conscience, say I’m going to (delay),” Judge Camille Buras said in September when Fuller asked to move trial after the NFL season, hoping to ensure a fair tribunal for his client.
“That does not, to me, seem like a good legal reason.”
“I don’t know how we can automatically make these assumptions that are so vulgar about black men,” Dyan French Cole or “Mama D,” a Seventh Ward resident protesting Hayes’ arrest on the corner of Tulane Avenue, said one December morning at the start of trial. Surrounded by half a dozen protestors, she pointed toward the criminal court where Hayes prepared for the week that would decide his life.
“They are guilty when they walk up these steps, not after they go inside.”
This much is a given here: Louisiana’s criminal justice system is in need of reform, and New Orleans along with it. Cole’s refrain is a common local opinion about Hayes’ case. New Orleanians empathize with him — not many, but enough to garner attention. They’ve seen plenty of “Cardells” before. They’ve seen black boys disappear into a courtroom only to never return. Hayes isn’t the first and won’t be the last.
Harry Connick’s 30-year run (from 1973-2003) as the former district attorney is one cause for their angst. A southern Democrat that used music to leverage political power, the “Singing District Attorney” ran an office laced with controversy when he wasn’t humming at nightclubs in the French Quarter.
The U.S. Supreme Court chastised his regime in a 1995 opinion, describing an office culture that repeatedly failed to turn over exculpatory evidence. In that case, a man spent 14 years on death row and was nearly executed before missing evidence exonerated him. He called his predecessors weak, “moral midgets” and received dozens of misconduct complaints.
Leon Cannizzaro, the current DA, came in 2008 billing himself as a reformer. Yet in 2011, he was asked why his office mishandled a murder case by not turning over evidence. Cannizzaro responded that the defense counsel never asked for it. “If he doesn’t, we aren’t obligated to give it to him.”
During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Henry Glover’s charred body was found in a roadside Chevy, having been burned by NOPD officers after they’d shot him. Two days later, cops shot six unarmed black people on Danziger Bridge, killing a 17-year-old boy and a 40-year-old man. Both resulted in police cover-ups.
A Justice Department attorney called these crimes the “most significant police misconduct” prosecution since Rodney King’s beating. Eleven years later, the city paid more than $13 million in a civil rights settlement.
That’s why Byron Cole was outside of criminal court most of the sweltering summer. Cole wanted to personalize this case. He felt the need to watchdog this system. He, Simmons, O’Neal, and many others marched with signs and megaphones. They broadcasted their message over live streams on Facebook. They passed out white “Free Bear” T-shirts with a bear’s face on the front and dreadlocks raining from its head.
This wasn’t just that they thought Hayes was being prepared for a ludicrous trial in a kangaroo court. He was the son of New Orleans they saw themselves in the most.
“We live under a stranglehold in New Orleans, man,” Cole said one day in November. “It’s really just status quo racism. Modified black laws. Modified Jim Crow.”
More recently, the community was stung by similarities between Smith’s shooting and that of Joe McKnight, a rushing powerhouse and national mega-recruit killed by Ronald Gasser one parish over in early December. The makings of Gasser’s case are similar to Hayes’ — a local football hero gunned down in an act of road rage — except for one detail. Gasser, who is white, left jail 24 hours after he shot a former NFL player. After public outcry, Gasser was charged and indicted. Hayes, who is black, hasn’t been home since April 9.
The McKnight shooting’s aftermath enraged Hayes’ family and friends. One day, it led to a heated argument outside of court.
“We just watched a white man execute a man in cold fucking blood. Cold fucking blood, stood over him, witness are out there saying what they saw,” O’Neal said on a video which was posted to Facebook, with Simmons behind him and Big Freedia to his left.
“This man is at home, bruh! This man is at home. Cardell Hayes was attacked by Will Smith, as well as Will Smith’s entourage, and he’s sitting in jail for murder. For murder! He’s sitting in jail for murder with a $1.7 million bond and don’t none of y’all give a fuck about that.”
The prosecution doesn’t understand the fuss. “What happened in Jefferson Parish has nothing to do with this case,” prosecutor Laura Rodrigue said, to which Buras nodded during jury selection.
“Whatever happens in this case, it won’t reveal anything new to me,” Chuck Perkins, a local radio host said from his studio in October. “The only thing it’ll do is reconfirm that there are different legal systems for us black folk and the wealthy or the white.”
The second floor of the courthouse in Mid-City sings from the scuff of prisoners’ shoes sliding across tile. Men and women in orange jumpsuits shuffle through wooden doors along the hallway during the week of Hayes’ trial.
New Orleans courts are more picturesque than most. The roof is decorated with Victorian chandeliers. Parthenon-style oak columns balance Buras’ stand, which is anchored by Louisiana and United States flags with two angels dancing on the flagpoles.
“That’s what this was, this was murder!” prosecutor Jason Napoli screams in his closing argument. “April 9 was an execution on the streets, and the only verdict in this case is guilty as charged.”
The families are separated by a center aisle, the Smiths on the right, Hayes’ family on the left. During testimony, a member of the Smith family had flashed a middle finger at O’Neal. Hayes’ family had the tendency to laugh during Racquel Smith’s emotional three hours on the stand. Another night, there was a minutes-long staring contest as court let out after a long, contentious day.
The Smith family has a police escort. Racquel Smith is accompanied by crestfallen women wearing goose egg-sized diamond rings. On each arm are battered-looking NFL men.
Hayes’ family and supporters carpooled or came on the bus, arriving with their own expressions of grief etched on their faces. A lot of the time during the trial, bailiffs kept them from entering the court. It was a fire hazard to have that many people on one side of the room.
Racquel Smith cried during the swings of the trial. Her kids had lost their dad. She’d lost the love of her life. And by her and her friends’ accounts, Hayes was evil. He purposely pulled the trigger and put those bullets in her legs. Sending him “back to the streets,” as Napoli says on that last day of trial, was not an option.
“The most important evidence in this case is buried with Will Smith. Those are his wounds,” Napoli says before crying in front of the jury. “Will Smith played defense for this city. He was defenseless that night. Now it’s your turn to play defense for him.”
The crescendos of the prosecution draw ire from Hayes’ supporters. Many of them believe the truth was thrown aside to get justice for just one family in the case: Hayes was legally allowed to carry in this state, one with Stand Your Ground laws. That he drew and fired at a threat didn’t make him devilish. It made him Louisianian.
“Don’t throw away this boy’s life like this. You owe this family more than that,” Fuller says to the jury. “We have the rich and famous and the poor and the powerless. Don’t jump to conclusions. This boy deserves to be treated like everyone else.”
By the time court recesses, each side thinks it won. Fuller shakes old women’s hands, leads the gathered public in prayer, yucks it up with bailiffs. The prosecution surely doesn’t mind Brees hugging Cannizzaro midcourt as a horde of Saints stars sit and comfort Racquel Smith.
The heaviness of this case weighed tangibly on family. The mornings grew to afternoons and crept into nights. They spent every day, at times 14 hours, in court for a six-day trial reliving the night that changed everything.
One of those evenings, Hayes’ mother, Dawn, ducked to St. Bernard Avenue for a quiet meal. In the months her boy had been behind bars, she’d lost a lot of weight, Bryant Lee said. Fair-toned with skin the color of sweet potato pie, Dawn Mumphrey’s hair is graying around her temples.
At the only table in the joint, her head shifted between a window and her hands.
“You gotta eat something, grandma” a waitress said.
“I’m trying,” she replied. “But I can’t hold anything down.”
The place started to close as Dawn finally picked at her plate. Her pupils grew red. Her voice cracked, and she whispered as the shop grew empty.
“I pray for strength,” she sniffed. “I know he’s coming home. I just know it.”
The jury finds Hayes guilty of the manslaughter of Will Smith and the attempted manslaughter of Racquel Smith after five hours deliberating. The verdict comes right as Sunday Night Football ends. Media reports later described how pressured the jury felt to convict. The members wanted to write letters begging for leniency at sentencing.
“In between, there were lots of tears,” a juror told the New Orleans Advocate. “This was gut-wrenching.”
As soon as Hayes is cuffed, his momma glues herself to the mahogany pillars on her left. His pastor tries to hold her as she wails, her body cranking like a metronome. What do you tell Dawn Mumphrey when the state takes her only boy away for good?
“Do you need a drink?” Hayes asks, unable to help her with two bailiffs anchoring him.
Hayes’ family waits in the empty chambers that night sobbing as the Smith family departs with its police escort. Payton flew back from an afternoon loss in Tampa Bay to hear the verdict in person. He bear-hugs former tailback Pierre Thomas, who was with Smith before the shooting, and slaps his hand so loudly it echoed the empty halls.
“We did it,” he said.
Racquel Smith cries into her coat as she exits, her friends shaking deputies’ hands. As they pass, Hayes’ family can’t seem to leave.
They are stuck to this place and their last minutes with Hayes. Rouzan, his friend from the barbershop, has tears wedged in his thick beard. Hayes’ sister, Genitra, had been smiling all week and running around with CJ, Hayes’ son. Now she ducks under a pew.
Lawyers from each side bolt out of doors from different angles of the courthouse. Fuller, who beamed every time the spotlight was on him, left through one side door downtrodden, trudging into the darkness surrounding the building. The prosecution, content that their version of justice has been delivered, darts out of a different side door with smiles earned after an emotional battle.
“This was the murder of a hero,” Cannizzaro says hours later, explaining that his office wants Hayes, 29, to serve 60 years. “Mr. Hayes is not going to hurt anyone ever again.”
A deputy slams the doors behind Hayes’ family members as they drag themselves down those main courthouse steps. Big Freedia fought off cameras so Dawn and Genitra could sprint to a nearby SUV.
With two families destroyed and the courtroom battle finished, it is finally clear that justice is not the same as recompense. “There are no winners in a situation like this,” Deuce McAllister, a former Saints running back and close friend to Smith, tells cameras outside as he walks out with Racquel.
The only lights left shining are the red twinkles from an ambulance speeding down Tulane Ave. Camera crews spinning the news are met by a group of citizens at the place that had sent so many of them away over the years. People parked their cars in the middle of intersections. They cried into Snapchat apps and live feeds as the news spread around New Orleans.
A middle-aged man in a hoodie walks up to the courthouse from the dark. He begins yelling at ESPN’s cameras, beseeching them to “tell the truth.” When asked, the man declines to give his name, only identifying himself as “a concerned citizen of New Orleans.”
“That was a good kid. Y’all know what it was. This is a set-up and a game.”
“Cardell Hayes was guilty when he walked up those steps.”