NEW ORLEANS — The discovery of a handgun inside Will Smith’s vehicle raised new questions about just what happened Saturday night, when the former New Orleans Saints defensive end was shot to death.
The Smith family lawyer, Peter Thomson, called a news conference Wednesday afternoon to insist that Smith was not armed when he was killed in downtown New Orleans during a confrontation on a busy street.
“At no time during this event, to my knowledge at all, did Will Smith ever brandish or carry on his person a firearm,” Thomson said in the first extensive comments from the Smith family or its representative.
Smith was licensed to carry a concealed weapon that may have been inside the vehicle, but he wasn’t reaching for it when he was shot, Thomson said.
John Fuller, the lawyer for suspect Cardell Hayes, said, “We have reason to believe that there may have been a second gun on the scene. And there definitely were allusions to a second gun.”
Smith was shot eight times, according to findings just released by the Orleans Parish coroner.
The report says seven of the wounds were in Smith’s back and one was in his left side. Several bullets penetrated vital organs, including his heart and lungs, coroner Jeffrey Rouse said. A toxicology analysis is being done, but results won’t be available for six to eight weeks, the report says.
Smith’s wife, Racquel, was shot once in each leg and is recovering in a hospital, Thomson said.
Guns found in vehicles
New Orleans police detectives found a fully loaded 9mm handgun inside Smith’s Mercedes G63 SUV on Tuesday morning when they served search warrants on the vehicle, police said.
Investigators also found a fully loaded revolver inside the Hummer H2 driven by Hayes.
After the shooting, police confiscated one gun at the scene: the .45-caliber handgun they say Hayes used to shoot Smith and his wife. Hayes is charged with second-degree murder.
Police haven’t said who owned the additional guns. In addition to Smith and his wife, there were another male and female in his vehicle. There was a male passenger in Hayes’ Hummer.
“No bullet casings were found inside either vehicle, and no ballistic evidence was recovered to show that either weapon was fired during the incident,” police said.
But did those weapons play any role in what unfolded Saturday night? Police haven’t said. At least one witness has said he heard two men shouting about having guns before the shooting.
The fact that Smith had a gun that night raises the possibility that Hayes’ lawyers may employ a “stand your ground” defense.
Under Louisiana state law, people who aren’t breaking the law “have no duty to retreat before using deadly force … and may stand his or her ground and meet force with force.”
Smith lawyer gives account of shooting
Thomson said Smith was behind the wheel of the Mercedes SUV when an orange Hummer pulled in front of them. Smith slammed on his brakes but the vehicles didn’t strike each other, so Smith drove on, Thomson said.
A brief time later, the Hummer rammed the Mercedes at a high-rate of speed, causing the back windshield of the Mercedes to shatter, Thomson said. Smith got out of his vehicle, as did the driver and passenger in the Hummer, Thomson said.
“Words were exchanged,” he said.
Racquel Smith and the other woman in the Mercedes SUV got out and tried to defuse the situation, Thomson said, and they talked Smith into walking back to his vehicle.
The driver of the Hummer followed and shot Racquel Smith in each leg, Thomson said, then “unloaded six to eight shots into Will’s back.” Smith was declared dead at the scene. Hayes stayed and waited for police, officials have said.
Lawyer says Hayes not the aggressor
Hayes’ lawyer insists his client wasn’t the aggressor, but the victim of a hit-and-run.
“Someone hit him, the person failed to pull over,” Fuller told reporters. “My client trailed behind this person in an effort to get this license plate number. My client also called 911.”
Fuller didn’t specify whether Smith — who not long before had been enjoying a fun night out with his wife and friends — was the one who rear-ended his client.
Police say the two men did exchange words, after which shots were fired. Officers arrived four minutes later.
They found Smith’s body “in the middle of the street, partially inside of his vehicle, suffering from multiple gunshot wounds to the body,” the police report said. “He died at the scene.”
Hayes was still there. That he didn’t leave — and, moreover, that he’d secured a witness who was heading out — is telling, according to his lawyer.
“Now, tell me if that’s the behavior that’s consistent with someone who’s an animal out here looking for blood,” Fuller said. “His actions are totally consistent with someone that is complying with a police investigation.”
Police didn’t explain why it took three days to find the guns in the vehicles.
Police Superintendent Michael Harrison initially said that police had “only confiscated one firearm from the scene” — the one “that we believe was used in the shooting.”
When pressed as to whether there might have been other weapons at the scene, Harrison said Sunday that investigators were still trying to answer that kind of questions.
Anger, sadness in New Orleans
Pierre Thomas, a longtime Saints running back now with the Washington Redskins, sounded off Tuesday for the first time about an incident he was “still trying to wrap my head around.”
Thomas said in an Instagram post that he “witnessed a close friend, teammate and a man that I thought of as one of my big brothers in the NFL shot to death OVER A … FENDER BENDER!!!!”
“Why!? I just don’t get it,” Thomas added, before blasting what he called “so much senseless killing going on in our world.” “These images that I have in my head will never leave me.”
The place where Smith’s bloody body lay, near the intersection of Sophie Wright Place and Felicity Street, has gone from crime scene to memorial.
There are balloons, flowers and other remembrances. One is a shirt from Smith’s alma mater, Ohio State University. Many more items speak to his nine seasons with the Saints, during which time he helped the franchise win its first Super Bowl. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2006 and, the Saints announced Sunday (a month ahead of schedule), recently had been unanimously picked to join the football team’s Hall of Fame.
Smith’s casket will be at the team’s practice facility on Friday for public viewing.
‘Tragic at every level’
No doubt, the stature of Smith and the Saints has focused the region’s attention on his killing, more than other homicides in New Orleans over the years. Gun violence is not new to New Orleans. It’s something that Smith himself took note of a few years ago after a stretch of 20 killings in 26 days in the city.
“Please Stop the Violence!” he tweeted
Fuller, the lawyer representing Hayes, urged people — even if they care passionately about this case — not to jump to conclusions.
“Whether the victim is famous, infamous, popular, unpopular, black, white, Catholic, Baptist, 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.”
Fuller hinted that toxicology tests will “absolutely” be key to his client’s case.
At the Wednesday press conference, Thomson said Smith had been drinking at a restaurant but was not impaired in any way.