The man accused of shooting and killing former New Orleans Saints star Will Smith in a fit of road rage feared for his own life as the confrontation escalated into a three-car pileup that sent terrified witnesses scrambling, the man's lawyer told NBC News on Monday.
Cardell A. Hayes, 28, is being held on $1 million bond on suspicion of second-degree murder after the incident Saturday night in New Orleans. Police say Hayes' Humvee rear-ended Smith's Mercedes-Benz, then he shot the athlete in the back and the side.
A hearing was held Monday to determine whether Hayes has a lawyer after his initial attorney, John Fuller, said he would have to drop the case because he's about to assume a judgeship, creating a conflict of interest.
But before he turned over the case, Fuller told NBC News on Monday that his client is innocent and will plead not guilty.
Fuller said Hayes' vehicle was struck by a vehicle that didn't stop, so Hayes "attempted to kind of tail behind the vehicle and get the license plate — also he made an effort to call 911 and report what occurred."
The incident ended up in a three-vehicle accident, after which "all hell broke loose, for lack of a better term," he said.
Fuller said Hayes wasn't the only person at the scene who feared for his life.
"We talked to a number of witnesses who were out there also who were fearful based on the actions of parties besides Mr. Hayes," Fuller said, adding that "ballistics will support what I'm telling you."
New Orleans police have said that Smith, 34, and his wife, Racquel, who was wounded but survived, were the likely victims of an "accident that turned into a disturbance that turned violent," with Hayes being the aggressor.
But Fuller challenged that account, saying, "Events did not occur as they were initially spelled out by the police."
Hayes, he said, not only stayed at the scene but even tried to persuade other witnesses to stick around to talk to police.
As a tow truck driver, Hayes has been in accidents before, and "none of them resulted in bloodshed." Fuller said. Moreover, he said, Hayes is a gentle man with a family of his own and no record of criminal violence.
Orleans Parish court records show that Hayes pleaded guilty in 2014 to possession of an illegal weapon and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Fuller said it was also highly unlikely that the confrontation had anything to do with a settlement Hayes reached with the city in 2011 after police killed his father in 2005.
Smith had dinner with one of the six officers implicated in the 2005 shooting before the road incident Saturday, but Fuller indicated that was simply a coincidence.
"I can tell you, living here since basically the last 20 years, that this is a city where we all run into each other," he said.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Police Superintendent Michael Harrison, meanwhile, said they had met with Racquel Smith, who suffered gunshot wounds to her right leg.
"Our thoughts and prayers are obviously still with that family," Harrison said. "They're going through a very tough time. We were happy to be able to spend a few moments with them."