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Ex-Saints star's killer faces sentencing, but delay possible

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AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — It was a road-rage confrontation that cost former New Orleans Saints star Will Smith his life. Now, more than a year later, the man who pumped eight bullets into Smith is close to learning his punishment.

Cardell Hayes, 29, appeared to have caught something of a break at his December trial when a jury rejected the prosecution’s push for a second-degree murder verdict, which would have meant mandatory life in prison.

But New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said soon afterward that he believes Hayes deserves a 60-year sentence: the maximum 40 years for Smith’s death, to be followed by another 20 for attempted manslaughter in the wounding of Smith’s wife Racquel.

Hayes is scheduled for a sentencing hearing Wednesday in the courtroom of state District Judge Camille Buras. Buras also is expected to hear arguments on a motion, filed Tuesday, seeking a new trial based on unspecified “new evidence.” Details were not immediately available.

That might push a final decision on sentencing to later in the week even if Buras rejects the motion. A provision in the state criminal code says a sentence cannot be imposed until at least 24 hours after a new trial motion is overruled.

The sentencing hearing is likely to echo the drama of Hayes’s trial, including testimony from Racquel Smith about the effect the shooting had on her and her three children.

“You’ll see a Cliff’s Notes version of the trial,” predicts Donald “Chick” Foret, a criminal attorney and legal analyst.

And it will likely draw a crowd, including local sports figures. Saints stars past and present – including coach Sean Payton, quarterback Drew Brees and former running back Deuce McAllister – often dropped in to the trial to show support for Smith’s friends and family.

Smith was cast during the trial not only as a football hero – part of the Saints team that lifted the stricken city’s spirits after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the one that won a Super Bowl in 2010 – but also a beloved community leader who settled in New Orleans after retirement.

Expect the defense to again characterize Hayes, a former semi-pro football player and the owner of a tow truck business, as the affable, loving father to his 6-year-old son. The defense has noted the absence of any serious criminal record and has said Hayes feared for his life when he encountered a drunken, belligerent Smith following a traffic crash on the night of April 9, 2016.

Jurors heard at trial that Hayes’s Hummer had rear-ended Smith’s Mercedes SUV that night, shortly after the SUV appeared to have tapped the rear of Hayes’s car.

Although prosecutors said Hayes deliberately rammed Smith’s vehicle, Hayes insisted he was trying to get Smith’s license number when the second crash occurred. The jury appeared to believe Hayes on this point, finding him not guilty of aggravated criminal damage to property.

Hayes said he armed himself only after he and his own passenger

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