Man pleads not guilty in killing of former NFL player in New Orleans

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[April 29, 2016]  By Helen Freund
 NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - A man accused of fatally shooting retired NFL player Will Smith and wounding the athlete's wife this month in New Orleans pleaded not guilty on Thursday after a grand jury indicted him on second-degree murder, attempted murder and other charges.

The panel reached its decision after the start of a probable cause hearing in the case against Cardell Hayes, 28, prosecutors said.

Smith, one of the NFL’s top defensive ends before his 2014 retirement, was returning from a dinner with his wife on April 9 when police say a Hummer driven by Hayes struck the rear of Smith’s Mercedes SUV and caused it to crash into another vehicle. The two men exited their cars and exchanged words before Hayes drew a weapon and fired multiple shots, police said.

Smith, 34, was hit by gunfire eight times and pronounced dead on the scene. Smith’s wife, Racquel, was shot twice in the leg and survived.

The grand jury also indicted Hayes on charges of aggravated assault with a firearm and aggravated criminal damage to a vehicle.

Hayes faces a mandatory life sentence if convicted of second-degree murder.

Hayes, who sat through the hearing in court shackles and wearing an orange jumpsuit, did not speak. Through his lawyers, he pleaded not guilty to all of the charges, and his bond was set at $1.75 million.

His lawyers said Hayes was not the aggressor but rather a victim of a hit-and-run earlier in the evening.

Police have not verified that account, and have not confirmed that the shooting was the result of road rage or offered any another motive.

Thursday's session included a tense courtroom exchange in which Hayes’ attorneys sparred with prosecutors, accusing them of rushing the indictment to cut short the preliminary hearing.

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John Fuller, an attorney for Hayes, was in the middle of questioning a private investigator when the indictment was announced.

The investigator, David Olasky, testified that a witness told him she had seen a man remove a gun from Smith’s SUV after the shooting.

Investigators have said they found a fully loaded 9mm handgun in Smith’s car but that there was no indication that the weapon had been fired.

Will Smith played for the New Orleans Saints for a decade and was a prominent member of the team during their Super Bowl victory in 2010. Following an injury in 2013, his contract was terminated and he retired in 2014.

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Tom Brown and Bernard Orr)

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