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24 hours in the murder capital of the U.S.

The killings of Joe McKnight and Will Smith, two famous football players, cast light on New Orleans’ ghastly, rotten core

NEW ORLEANS — The reason guns dominated the news over the weekend was because two dead people were famous football players. Will Smith and Joe McKnight were both killed, eight months apart, after road rage incidents in which the shooters claimed self-defense. Many shootings come and go, like the one on this Monday morning, which occurred in the hours between Smith’s killer, Cardell Hayes, being sentenced to decades in Angola for manslaughter and the funeral for slain local football legend McKnight. Let’s start with a shooting that didn’t bring in satellite trucks. Around 6:30 a.m., a woman named Renada Gibson walked into a gas station near the highway in New Orleans East. She bought two coffees, four doughnuts, a pack of cigarettes and a fruit bar.

The guy behind the counter had a reputation for pulling a gun on customers when even a little threatened, according to a report by the Times-Picayune. Gibson argued with the guy, then demanded a refund. The employee allegedly cursed her and walked her out of the store while holding his cocked weapon. She and her husband, Kerry Francois, called the police and waited for officers to arrive.

The employee kept blowing kisses to them and flipping them the bird and cursing them, the paper reported. Francois says the employee pointed his gun and so Francois started shooting his own gun, hitting the employee in the leg and wounding two other bystanders. Ambulances came, and the hospital patched up all three victims, while police took Francois to jail. He’s the only person who fired, and in a year, there will be another self-defense case for the courts to sort out. Three people shot barely qualifies as news in a city that is at once a great place to visit and live while also being a very easy place to die. People get shot in New Orleans all the time without anyone even really noticing, their occurrences three times the number of murders per capita as Chicago over the past five years. But on Sunday and Monday, the fame of Smith and McKnight made the city spend a troubling 24 hours confronted with its own rotting core.

Sunday morning people crowded Courtroom 8 for the seventh straight day. Light flooded the big windows of the long, once grand and now peeling atrium, where family members of accused killer Cardell Hayes and of former New Orleans Saints star Will Smith waited during breaks.

Everyone basically agreed that, after a night of drinking, Smith’s Mercedes bumped Hayes’ Hummer and then fled, with Hayes chasing and then ramming into the back of the Mercedes, at which point Smith and a friend charged out of the car, the friend ripping his shirt off for a fight. Everyone agrees that Hayes, a 29-year-old sober tow truck company owner who’d just left a party where people had been playing Pictionary, stepped out of his car. Some witnesses said he was calm at first, others say he was angry.

Few people agree on anything that happened after that.

Cardell Hayes was convicted of manslaughter after killing former Saints player Will Smith in a road rage incident. Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office via AP

Cardell Hayes was convicted of manslaughter after killing former Saints player Will Smith in a road rage incident. Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office via AP

Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office via AP

On Sunday, both sides presented their closing arguments.

I found a seat on the right side of the courtroom, sitting behind Smith’s friend and former teammate, the ALS activist Steve Gleason, who watched the trial from his wheelchair, and across from Hayes’ cousin, the beloved bounce rapper Big Freedia. Famous athletes dotted the benches behind the prosecutors, and ordinary citizens crammed in behind Hayes.

Defense attorney John Fuller argued that nobody was responsible after Smith’s friend, Richard Hernandez, ran back with his shirt off, that the whole encounter started with aggression and everything that came after flowed from that initial act.

His voice went from a bellow to a whisper.

“If he wasn’t there that night,” Fuller said, “we wouldn’t be here today.”

Will Smith’s killer was convicted. Joe McKnight’s alleged killer will go on trial. There are no winners, just grief, in New Orleans.

When the cops arrived, they found Hayes waiting on them, magazine out of his Ruger, telling officers that he was the shooter. He cried in despair and said his life was over. Fuller talked about the randomness of it all, describing the last free day of Hayes’ life, when he took care of his dogs and went to the barber shop.

“What if Cardell had taken another way home?” he asked.

Prosecutor Laura Rodrigue had the final word, starting calm but soon screaming, too. As a prosecutor from a prominent family, she is confronted daily by murders, all but a handful in the parts of town where a tourist would never step foot, just six of 168 (and counting) murders this year occurring in the wide, wealthy swath of New Orleans made up of the Garden District and Uptown. Two years ago, according to crime records, only eight of the 150 murder victims were white. Rodrigue is a citizen of both places, the city of parades and great food and parties, and the one of assault rifles and funerals and crying families.

“This case is no different than the senseless and unnecessary murders that happen every day in this city,” she yelled. “This is about somebody that got really mad. Cardell Hayes had the courage to grab a gun, but not to shoot Will Smith while he was standing in front of him. He waits until he’s got a clean shot at him, and shoots him when Will Smith walks away because he thinks it’s over.”

She ridiculed Hayes’ claim that he didn’t mean to shoot the gun, saying it takes five pounds of pressure to pull a trigger. Her whole being vibrated from anger, as the Smith contingent nodded with each point, and her anger flowed from the victim and his family, whose lives had been ruined because of a fender bender. Finding the defendant innocent would make it OK for people to kill anyone they wanted because of road rage. “Is that the world we want to live in?” she says. “When you’re born, you get a birth certificate and a gun, and whoever shoots first wins?”

She wasn’t exaggerating much. New Orleans has many problems — a crime problem and a poverty problem and a drug problem, an anger problem and clearly a road rage problem — but it also has a gun problem. According to a report in the Times-Picayune, more than 46 percent of households in the state have guns, and there are more gun deaths per capita in Louisiana than any other state. A powerful African-American community leader with a 16-year-old son told me he’s now desperate enough to be open to stop-and-frisk, anything to make people keep their weapons at home. One morning during the trial, I skipped the testimony and drove to see a New Orleans police officer named Charlie Hoffacker. He ground some coffee beans while we talked about the violence and gun culture in the city, where it’s a smart bet to just assume that all the cars driving past contain at least one firearm.

“Everybody’s packing,” Hoffacker says, walking to the painting studio that has taken over the front room of his Mid-City shotgun house. He’s on the SWAT team, trained as a sniper, and is probably the most important artist in a town swarming with them, since much of his work revolves around the violence and death he sees day after day in his actual job. His paintings of AK-47s — known as choppers, their ubiquity giving the city its nickname Chopper City — really get at what’s going on here. He paints the guns draped in Mardi Gras beads, sometimes just floating in space, other times laid out on a bed of crawfish. One has the Gaelic phrase “Kiss my ass” over the gun. He loves how so many people have such strong reactions to the paintings. “I don’t care if anything ever sells,” he says. “I just want people to think. Our priority in this city is about partying. I feel like our priority should be stopping violence and finding out what the problem is.”

Both lawyers sat down and the wait for a verdict began.

Nearly six hours passed.

All the talk about guns is abstract and political when that conversation exists in the realm of ideas, but hanging out around a courtroom, waiting on a jury to decide the future of two families, the whole thing gets intimate, personal and real. The sun went down and some people walked around the corner to a little joint named The Side Bar, with comfortable couches and hot coffee. The place served free hot dogs for the Saints game.

The Saints played and lost and the team got on the plane to come home, and still people waited. Four hours into the deliberations, another killing happened across the river, a man named Robert Rochon, shot in his car at the intersection of Flanders and Socrates. He was the 167th victim of 2016.

Saints head coach Sean Payton escorted the widow of Will Smith, Racquel, into the courthouse one day before the verdict. Michael DeMocker/NOLA.com The Times-Picayune via AP, File

Saints head coach Sean Payton escorted the widow of Will Smith, Racquel, into the courthouse one day before the verdict. Michael DeMocker/NOLA.com The Times-Picayune via AP, File

Michael DeMocker/NOLA.com The Times-Picayune via AP, File

Hayes sat in the courtroom with his lawyers, staring up at the ceiling, decorated with white flowers and leaves in the molding. His mom sat facing away from the long hall, her head slumped to the side, while Fuller gathered with more family members and friends in a huddle.

The tension mounted, nearly unbearable.

“This is the worst part,” Fuller said, headed down the marble steps to the first floor of the courthouse, just pacing now.

The mood changed, and people started finding their seats once more. Around 10:30, word filtered in that the jury had reached a verdict. Head coach Sean Payton came in, straight from the loss in Tampa, sitting in the third row.

“Bring the jury down,” the judge said.

The foreperson brought the verdict to the judge, who read it slowly, then had the juror re-initial something, with Hayes standing, waiting, seconds passing like minutes now. Then, finally, the decision: Guilty on two counts, facing anywhere from 20 to 60 years in prison. Racquel Smith wept and shook uncontrollably, hugged by family members, while Hayes’ mother fell apart, too; in handcuffs, his freedom gone, Cardell could only think about her, asking if she needed any water. Big Freedia covered her face in her hands and cried, too. Nobody felt good, and then two destroyed families stepped into the night, surrounded by blinding television lights and camera flashes. An ambulance clicked on its siren, speeding off down Tulane Avenue, the sound unbearable and loud at first, then quickly fading away until another inevitably took its place.

Trying to sleep before the Joe McKnight funeral in the morning, I thought about a book I’d been reading. The day before, Hoffacker and I had talked about the groundbreaking work of retired Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a former West Point psychology professor whose books, “On Killing” and “On Combat,” are at the vanguard of research and thought about what happens to a human in a gunfight.

When faced with extreme stress or fear, our body jacks up our heart rate. Grossman has created a scale, moving from white to yellow to red to gray to black. Actual warriors want to remain in the yellow, with the ability to get to red, where they are at their most efficient. Anything more than 145 beats per second, however, you slip from red into gray. Unless you are a highly trained operator, like a SEAL or a Ranger, you are basically transitioning from a human to a wolf. At 175 beats per second, you are in the black: The forebrain, responsible for thought and reason, literally shuts down and turns the body over to the animalistic midbrain.

“Once your heart rate rises about 145 bpm,” Grossman writes, “there is nothing there you want.”

Navy SEALs and other special operators use a specially designed and dangerous training to make reactions hard-wired. Their training serves intentionally as a stress inoculator, including actually being tortured while being taught how to withstand capture.

Most police officers, however, are trained to shoot but not to do so under stress. Spending a lot of time on a range, shooting paper targets, does little good in a gunfight, which is why, according to a study, cops whose shooting accuracy is 90 percent on the range shoot 20-25 percent in the field. Like soldiers, most cops go on autopilot during a shootout, except in their autopilot the brain is shutting down the flow of blood to parts of itself not essential to survival. In this state, even trained cops get tunnel vision, which gets narrower the higher the heart rate. Officers in the book reported that some memories are amplified and others are completely erased. Distortions in scale and time occur. One officer reported seeing beer cans floating slowly through the air during a shootout and then saw “Federal” stamped on the bottom and realized they were the empty shell casings from his partner, who also was shooting. Officers reported killing suspects and thinking a fellow officer pulled the trigger. Or they reported firing a weapon nine times, along with four blasts from a partner’s shotgun, while hearing no shots at all.

Some cops, and most civilians, find it easy to pull a trigger accidentally, and difficult to only pull it once. For Grossman, there emerges a concept known as bilateral symmetry above 145 beats per minute. If someone grabs a fistful of shirt with their left hand while holding a gun in the other, both hands can flinch at the same time, causing the person to accidentally fire their weapon.

A civilian with a gun, even one familiar with using it, basically has no chance of being in control, or accurately determining who should be shot and who should be allowed to live. And it isn’t some liberal suggesting that, but Grossman, the person trusted by many of the most elite killers in the world. The prosecutor Rodrigue kept talking about five pounds of pressure required to pull a trigger, but Grossman says that bilateral symmetry can produce up to 25 pounds of pressure in the shooter’s hand.

In other words, Rodrigue is asking how Hayes could have accidentally pulled the trigger, while Grossman’s book asks how could he have not.


Mourners at Joe McKnight's funeral. AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Mourners at Joe McKnight’s funeral. AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

The next morning, a white hearse pulled up and parked in front of a church on Carondelet Street. People carried the shiny casket inside and opened the top.

Joe McKnight lay there with his arms folded. His family can only bury him and remember him; very often in New Orleans, justice is elusive and incomplete, if it comes at all.

At the church, people lined up for the visitation. His old USC teammate, LenDale White, went inside and then came back out, walking off down the sidewalk, overcome. A high school teammate wore a John Curtis letterman’s jacket, red and blue, with patches on the sleeve for the 2005 and 2006 state championships he and Joe won together. Former college and pro teammates served as pallbearers.

Mark Sanchez sat next to McKnight’s high school coach, and both men needed a tissue from the ushers walking around with boxes. The whole scene, the lack of difference between people who played as John Curtis Patriots or as New York Jets, really made tangible the powerful bonds formed in a locker room, and the strength of that bond made the fragility of life, and the silliness of Joe’s death, all the more stark.

A soloist took a microphone, and nobody who sat in the two tiers of the bandbox church on Carondelet Street will ever forget how that song made them feel, long after the song itself has slipped from memory for good. A band roared and pounded, a heavy hand on the bass guitar, a heavy foot behind the drums.

The woman sang a song called “Break Every Chain.”

The hair stood up on people’s arms, even those who didn’t really believe in heaven or hell, or at least weren’t sure, because her voice felt like God telling everyone that somehow the broken mother in the front row might be all right.

Bishop Samuel Blakes spoke last.

He said that he knew Joe was in heaven, trading the potholes of New Orleans for streets paved with gold, leaving this land of the dying for a land of eternal life.

His worry, he said, was for those left behind.

“Death is coming back and, next time it won’t be for Joe,” he said, shouting at first and then lowering his voice, looking out at the faces. “It may be for …,” and he paused, and nobody said a word.

The big church went quiet.

He waited a long four seconds before practically whispering, “… you.”

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