NEW ORLEANS -- Will Smith’s relatives could only listen during the trial of Cardell Hayes in December.
Wednesday it was their turn to talk.
“He was my best friend,” Racquel Smith told Hayes during her victim-impact statement during the start of what would’ve been an otherwise routine sentencing hearing, if not for a last-minute, long-shot effort by the defense that sought a new trial. “He was not a perfect man, but he was so perfect to me.”
Racquel Smith’s testimony came at the end of a day that began with a rambling testimony by a former soldier and retired high-school physics teacher who claimed he heard two guns fire the night Smith was killed.
Hayes’ attorneys have argued that he only fired in self-defense, and they said he provided evidence that proved that.
But Michael Burnside's testimony quickly devolved into a meandering, hour-long, often off-topic rant by a man who said he doesn’t track days and time on a calendar or clock and couldn’t say for certain that the night claimed to hear two guns was April 9, 2016 -- the night Smith was killed and his wife shot in the leg after a road-rage incident in the Lower Garden District.
Burnside's testimony did little to move Orleans Parish Criminal District Judge Camille Buras who declined the defense’s motion for a new trial. Attorney John Fuller invoked his and his client’s right to wait 48 hours for sentencing after Buras refused the new trial.
Sentencing is now set for Friday, with the defense offering witness statements Thursday.
Hayes was convicted of manslaughter for killing Will Smith and attempted manslaughter for shooting Racquel Smith in the leg. He faces a sentence of 20 to 40 years for the manslaughter charge.
On Wednesday, Racquel Smith told the court that her children have had a hard time grappling with the loss of their father.
“All my kids are struggling. My baby boy, he doesn’t understand.”
She added that she only ever wanted an apology from Hayes.
“All I wanted from you was ‘I’m sorry.’ … All I ask of you is to tell the truth. … You owe my kids that much -- to own up to what you did. That’s all I ask of you -- to own up to what you did,” she said.
“If anything is bothering him in heaven, it’s that he’s not here for his kids,” Chantay Lee, Will Smith’s sister said. “It’s still very haunting for them (the Smith children) to know how their father was taken.”
“Things happen and people make mistakes … but you can’t tell me anything that happened that night -- you weren't justified,” Lee told Hayes in between sobs. “You were wrong.”
Janette Smith, Will Smith’s aunt, described her nephew as a “humble guy.”
“There’s been a lot of talk of the average people versus the big, rich, famous football player. He was just a humble guy,” she said. “I know that the person being portrayed was not the person I knew.
“I still have his number in my phone on speed dial, but I’m never going to hear from him again,” Smith said.
Saints Coach Sean Payton was gave the day’s final victim-impact statement.
He said remembered Smith as "extremely smart" and "passionate."
He also said Smith was "low-key (and) humble," despite his teammates selecting him a team captain and a successful run as a player at Ohio State University and in the NFL.
"Despite all of that ... he epitomized what we were looking for," Payton said.