Attorney: Suspect did not start quarrel that ended with Will Smith’s death

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Cardell Hayes did not know former New Orleans Saint Will Smith, and he was not the aggressor in the quarrel that ended with Smith dead in the street and Hayes charged with murder, an attorney for Hayes told reporters.

28-year-old Cardell Hayes has been arrested and booked for 2nd degree murder in the shooting death of former Saints football player Will smith. (Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office via CNN)

28-year-old Cardell Hayes has been arrested and booked for 2nd degree murder in the shooting death of former Saints football player Will smith. (Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office via CNN)

Hayes was the victim of a hit-and-run before his altercation with Smith, lawyer John Fuller said in remarks aired by CNN affiliate WDSU. The person who hit him sped off, and Hayes was trying to make out the license plate of the vehicle before he became involved in the deadly situation with the former NFL star.

According to police, Smith and his wife were in a Mercedes G63 SUV late Saturday when Hayes rear-ended them in his Hummer H2, causing the Benz to hit a Chevrolet Impala carrying some of Smith’s acquaintances.

Smith and Hayes “exchanged words” before Hayes shot the former New Orleans Saints defensive captain multiple times and shot Smith’s wife in the right leg, police said. Hayes now stands charged with second-degree murder.

Continuing coverage here

Attorney: Hayes ‘a lot nicer than he appears’

But Fuller said Sunday that his client’s actions tell a different story. Hayes called 911 before the shooting, he secured a witness who was leaving the scene, and he remained at the scene after the shooting until authorities arrived, Fuller said. Police have said they took 4 minutes to reach the scene.

“Now, tell me if that’s the behavior that’s consistent with someone who’s an animal out here looking for blood,” he said. “His actions are totally consistent with someone that is complying with a police investigation.”

He described Hayes as soft-spoken, easily approachable and “a lot nicer than he appears.”

Though he didn’t provide some details about his client’s actions — he either couldn’t or wouldn’t say whether Hayes accuses Smith of committing the hit-and-run — Fuller said the narrative that police have provided the media is not accurate.

“Whether the victim is famous, infamous, popular, unpopular, black, white, Catholic, Baptists, the law applies equally to everyone,” he said. “If the law is applied fairly in this case, I think the results are going to surprise a lot of folks.”

If toxicology tests are conducted “honestly,” Fuller said, they will “absolutely” play a key factor in his client’s case. He did not elaborate. Police have said toxicology reports won’t come back for six weeks.

A night out in New Orleans

Smith was at the French Quarter Fest earlier in the day before having dinner at the Sake Cafe with his wife, a former teammate, a former New Orleans police officer and a sports agent, restaurant general manager Dave Matherne said. They left the restaurant around 11:15 p.m., he said.

“You could hear them laughing at the table,” Matherne said. “It seemed they were having a really good time.”

In the strangest of twists — and one that police say they are considering in their investigation — the ex-police officer who was at Sake Cafe, Billy Ceravolo, was named in a lawsuit that Hayes filed a decade ago after officers with the New Orleans Police Department killed his father.

Ceravolo responded in court that Hayes’ dad tried to stab him and he feared for his life. The case was settled in 2011 for an undisclosed sum.

Fuller brushed it off as coincidence and questioned how Hayes could’ve possible known Smith had been at dinner with Ceravolo. New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Michael Harrison, too, said there’s no indication that any of this played a factor in Saturday’s shooting, though investigators are working to make sure that’s the case.

Hayes is being held in New Orleans Central Lockup on a $1 million bond, according to police and jail records.

‘Where’s my husband?’

Smith and his friends in the Impala were only about 10 blocks away from Sake Cafe when the violence erupted.

As the vehicles approached a five-point intersection in the city’s Lower Garden District neighborhood, Hayes was driving behind them in an orange Hummer H2, police said.

Hayes rear-ended the Mercedes, causing Smith’s SUV to hit the Impala. Smith and Hayes argued, and then Hayes “produced a handgun and shot Smith multiple times, the female victim was also shot to the leg,” a police statement said.

Janis Baehr says she was in a nearby bed-and-breakfast when she heard the crash, dispute and at least five shots fired.

The Florida resident, who was in town to celebrate a friend’s birthday at French Quarter Fest, told CNN she went outside after she heard a woman shout, “Please, God, somebody, please help me!”

There, she found Smith’s wife, Racquel, on the sidewalk screaming, she said. Baehr got on the ground with her, and they prayed together before paramedics arrived.

Baehr recalled Racquel Smith crying out, “Where’s my husband? Where’s my husband?”

Hayes scheduled to appear in court

According to the police report, Will Smith was “in the middle of the street partially inside of his vehicle suffering from multiple gunshot wounds to the body. He died at the scene.”

Hayes was still on the scene. Investigators recovered the weapon they believe he used, and it had no record, said Harrison, the police superintendent. Hayes also had a male passenger in the car with him. He was not identified, and Harrison said he had no information suggesting the passenger was involved in the shooting.

Hayes is scheduled to appear Monday afternoon in court, where he will confirm his counsel, Fuller said. Someone from Fuller’s office will represent him, he told reporters. Fuller cannot represent Hayes for the entirety of his case because he begins a temporary stint as a judge in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court in May.