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Cardell Hayes sentenced to 25 years for Will Smith killing

NEW ORLEANS -- The man who killed retired Saints star Will Smith and wounded Smith's wife during a traffic dispute last year was sentenced Thursday to 25 years in prison for manslaughter, far less than the maximum prosecutors had called for.

Cardell Hayes faced up to 60 years if given consecutive maximum terms for manslaughter and attempted manslaughter. Instead, Judge Camille Buras gave him 15 years for shooting Racquel Smith in the legs, to be served at the same time.

Hayes, 29, also will get a year of credit for the time he's already served since shooting one of the city's sports heroes in April 2016. State law requires him to serve 85 percent of the sentence before becoming eligible for good-behavior release, meaning he could be freed in roughly 20 years.

"If he was sentenced to 60 years he probably could have died in jail. At least with 25 he has the opportunity to be reunited with his family," Hayes' lawyer, John Fuller, said outside court.

In a statement, Racquel Smith expressed her disappointment with the "leniency" of the sentence handed down by Buras on Thursday.

"This ordeal has been a nightmare for me and my family. There are no winners here today. Today's sentencing does not bring back Will and leaves another child to grow up without a father."

Racquel Smith, in statement expressing disappointment with sentence

"My family and I are extremely disappointed with today's sentencing and the leniency showed by Judge Buras for the defendant. While we know nothing will ever bring Will back, we were hopeful that Judge Buras would have issued a stronger sentence to more justly reflect both the nature of the crimes and the tremendous loss and pain that my family has suffered as a result of Mr. Hayes' violent actions on the night of April 9, 2016," she said.

"This ordeal has been a nightmare for me and my family. There are no winners here today. Today's sentencing does not bring back Will and leaves another child to grow up without a father. I pray for the other families of New Orleans that are dealing with the same tragedy that comes with the loss of life at the hands of senseless violence. Will loved this city and we must do better together to enact serious change so that Will's unnecessary murder is not in vain."

She thanked the New Orleans District Attorney's Office and the city's police department and said she "will continue to shine my light for my Superman."

"Each day we continue to heal and work through our pain and feelings of enormous loss. Will's dedication to his family, his love for his community and his desire to live life to the fullest will continue to inspire me, Willie, Lisa, Wynter and everyone else who loved him. We are hopeful that we can finally focus on what brings us joy -- remembering Will for the man he was and the life he lived. We will carry our memories of Will with us every day for the rest of our lives," she said.

Hayes, the beefy ex-semi-pro football lineman who lumbered to the stand with his arms and legs shackled, broke down in tears Thursday as he talked of his 6-year-old son, and when he tried to describe the physical and mental toll his case has had on his mother. At one point he was allowed to leave the courtroom to regain his composure.

He looked at Racquel Smith and told her he wishes the night had never happened. And later, after again insisting that he acted in self-defense as Smith fired a gun at him, despite trial evidence to the contrary, he referred to the Smith family, saying, "I apologize for their loss."

Hayes' mother, Dawn Mumphrey, later took the stand. Wailing and shaking, she pleaded for mercy from the judge and begged for the Smiths to forgive her son.

"That's my baby," she said. "Lock me up and give me my son back."

Assistant New Orleans District Attorney Laura Rodrigue dismissed the tears as a "desperate attempt'' to gain sympathy, and hammered at Hayes' claim of self-defense. She referenced a 2016 recording of a prison phone conversation, played at trial, in which Hayes called Racquel Smith "a phony'' and Mumphrey also disparaged her.

"Cardell Hayes took the stand and flat-out lied. That's the most offensive part of this entire process,'' Rodrigue added. "To reward a person for taking the stand and lying is egregious.''

Smith was cast during the trial as a beloved community leader and a football hero, part of the Saints team that lifted the city's spirits after Hurricane Katrina and later won a Super Bowl. Saints coach Sean Payton testified Wednesday that had Smith survived, he would have hired him as an assistant.

Hayes' defense said after the trial that Smith's popularity led to a rush to judgment by police and prosecutors. Prosecutors countered that the defense was trying to smear Smith. The judge ultimately rejected a defense motion for a retrial.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.