NEW ORLEANS — She hobbled to the witness stand because that’s how you have to do it when someone shoots both of your legs. Each is now stabilized with a steel rod, part of eight months of wheelchairs and rehabs and bone fragments left behind, a recovery so challenging a limp becomes a point of pride.
She hobbled to the witness stand because that’s what you do, maybe not for yourself – she wishes she could put the whole terrible thing behind her. At least for your husband who didn’t survive, though, slayed by eight bullets, seven into his back from close range.
“I don’t want sympathy,” Racquel Smith said looking directly at the jury here at Orleans Criminal District Court. “I want justice for my husband. He isn’t here today but I am his voice.”
She hobbled to the witness stand because that’s what you do for your children, two boys and a girl, the ones who saw their parents go off to the French Quarter Festival one April Saturday and never really return. Dad, not all, while Mom they had to visit in a hospital.
“Mommy, where’s daddy?” one son asked and Racquel couldn’t even bear to explain it. “Daddy went to heaven. Daddy’s an angel now.”
She hobbled to the witness stand because she could finally speak to the guy who fired hollow point bullets from a .45-caliber gun and turned an idyllic life into a horror movie. “We had such an amazing day, well, before the nightmare hit us,” Smith would say.
Yes, there was Cardell Hayes, sitting at the defense table, trying to beat the rap on second-degree murder charges. He acknowledges shooting Will Smith, Racquel’s husband and former defensive great for the New Orleans Saints, after a couple of minor car accidents turned into a wild verbal argument turned into another pointless American tragedy.
Hayes, 28, says it was self-defense, says that Smith, 34, was headed to his Mercedes to get his own gun and he had no choice but to exercise the right to stand his ground.
As such, the case is complicated, the trial intense, the city on edge, everyone seemingly watching it closely via blanket local coverage.
Smith was part of the Saints team that inspired the city post-Hurricane Katrina and then delivered its only Super Bowl. He was a community mainstay, a man generous with money and time. And here in New Orleans, road rage and self-defense and gun violence are near daily topics of discussion, most recently last week when another former football star, local legend and NFLer Joe McKnight, was killed in a similar incident.
So, yes, Racquel Smith was going to hobble to that witness stand, going to make her case, speak her mind. This was the city she loved, she and Will, but now a city and a state she’s fled with her children, trying to start anew somewhere else. The kids miss it, though. So does she. Raised in Lafayette, she is Louisiana to the core, smart and beautiful and oh-so tough.
Here was her chance to confront Hayes, a man she knew for just a few fleeting seconds.
“Loud, angry, evil,” is how she described him during their last encounter.
And here was her chance to confront defense attorneys, who she believes spread falsehoods and mistruths in the media to pollute the jury, stories about evidence that might benefit Hayes, yes, but also ones that might cast aspirations on the Smiths and their whereabouts that day. For instance, the defense cited “multiple sources” last April that placed the couple at a French Quarter gentlemen’s club, which thus far hasn’t panned out as remotely true.
So when defense attorney John Fuller expressed his sympathy for her and her children’s loss and brought up losing his own father as a teen, she was having none of it and didn’t want the jury to be fooled.
“No one expressed any sympathy to me [until the jury was present],” Smith said. “They were putting lies about my family. And, no, we were not at [the] Penthouse [Club]. I’m a mother first. I want to state that for the record.”
Cardell Hayes says he shot Will Smith in self defense. (AP)
Whether she said enough to convict Hayes remains to be seen. The case is too nuanced for one witness to swing it, even an eyewitness/victim such as Racquel Smith. Hayes has a defense worth arguing and Fuller is doing it quite well.
A guilty verdict was the goal for Smith on Tuesday but not the only goal. This, too, was about standing up after being gunned down.
She didn’t want to be here. She had to be here. She comported herself with grace and power, sternly making her points, providing her perspective and not taking an inch from Fuller.
She and her husband had enjoyed a day of fun and drinking at a local festival, then dinner and a couple bars with friends. They wound up in a very minor car accident (if that) with Hayes’ Hummer before pulling away only to have Hayes follow them and eventually rear end the Mercedes at between 17 and 22 miles per hour, shattering glass and bending fenders. The defense claims he was trying to get the license plate number.
“It felt like an attack,” Smith said.
Her husband jumped out of the car. So, too, did Hayes, a 6-foot-6 tow truck driver and semi-pro football player who was even bigger than the former NFL great. Plus, Hayes was carrying his .45. There was arguing. There was shouting. There were insults and profanity. There was Racquel, she said, trying to drag her husband away from a senseless potential conflict. She even thought she’d been successful.
“I said [to Hayes], ‘Sir, please, we’re not like this, we have kids, this is my husband, this is Will, Will Smith, we’ll take care of it,’ ” she testified.
She then locked in on her husband and felt she had found a way to connect through the chaos.
“I looked him in his eyes and named our children, ‘Think of Lisa, Winter and Willie. This is not worth it,’ ” Racquel said. “And he looked me in my eyes and he walked away with me.”
The defense argues Will Smith wasn’t walking away in peace, but to get his own gun he had in the car. “[Smith] said, ‘You’ve got a gun? Well I got a gun too and I’m going to show you what to do with it,’ ” defense attorney Jay Daniels said during opening statements.
Whatever it was, the Smiths got but a few steps.
“I heard a ‘pop, pop,’ ” Racquel Smith said. “I didn’t even know it was me. I didn’t know it was my legs. I didn’t know I was shot. Someone yelled, ‘They’re shooting.’ I felt a burning. I grabbed my legs, I didn’t know. I knew I was shot. I just lay there. I just played dead, I didn’t know if he was going to come back and shoot me.
“A few seconds went by then I heard a ‘pop, pop, pop, pop, pop,’ ” she concluded.
That was the volley of bullets that killed her husband. She said Hayes was shouting then, apparently taunting Smith for acting tough in front of white people, perhaps a Hispanic friend that was with them or maybe bystanders who saw the altercation.
“[Hayes said], ‘You want to show off for the [expletive] white boy?’ ” Racquel testified. ” ‘Now look at you now. Look at you now?’ ”
The defense disputes that. It disputes lots of things. Again, that isn’t the entire point. Trials tend to contain small victories amidst the big. The jury will determine the latter. As for the former, Racquel Smith finally got her chance to confront the man who killed her husband and shot her legs and ruined her life.
“I was laying there in a lot of pain and all I could think about was my kids,” Racquel said. “I was crying and I was scared and I was just thinking about my babies and my husband. [I thought] ‘He is going to make it because he is my Superman. There is no way.’
“And my worst nightmare happened. He didn’t have to do that to my baby,” she said of Hayes. “He didn’t have to do that to him.”
She looked directly at the defendant.
“And you know it,” she said. “Or to me. I didn’t do you anything for you to shoot me?”
No matter how this trial ends, with Hayes convicted or cleared, after all these months, Racquel Smith returned to the city she once loved but now loathes, hobbled to the witness stand and stood her own damn ground.