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Jury selection begins in trial of man accused of killing ex-NFL star

By Helen Freund

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Jury selection began on Monday in the murder trial of a Louisiana man accused of fatally shooting retired NFL player Will Smith and wounding the athlete's wife following an April vehicle collision in New Orleans.

Cardell Hayes, 29, is charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of Smith, a former defensive lineman for the New Orleans Saints and a prominent member of the team during their 2010 Super Bowl victory.

Smith, who was 34 and had retired from the National Football League in 2014, was shot eight times on the night of April 9 and his body was found slumped over the steering wheel of his Mercedes SUV, according to police. Smith's wife, Racquel, sustained two gunshots to each leg but survived.

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Hayes, a tow truck driver, has pleaded not guilty to charges that also include attempted second-degree murder and aggravated criminal damage to property. If convicted of second-degree murder, Hayes faces a mandatory life sentence.

A panel of 120 possible jurors was brought into Orleans Parish Criminal District Court on Monday for the first stage of jury selection. Once selected, jurors will be sequestered for the duration of the trial, which is expected to last at least a week.

Authorities have said Smith was returning from a dinner in the city's Lower Garden District with his wife, Racquel Smith, shortly before 11:30 p.m. on the night of the incident.

Surveillance footage from the scene appears to show Smith's Mercedes SUV bump the rear of Hayes' Hummer before speeding off. Moments later, according to authorities, Hayes' Hummer hit the rear of Smith's vehicle, causing it to crash into a third car.

Following a heated exchanged, police say Hayes shot Smith eight times, including seven times in the back.

In the days following the shooting, authorities said they recovered a handgun from inside Smith's SUV that had not been fired. Toxicology reports showed Smith was legally drunk at the time of the incident.

Hayes' attorneys have hinted their client may claim self-defense. It was not clear whether Hayes will testify during the trial.

The trial could hinge on whether jurors believe Hayes acted in self-defense and who they perceive to be the initial aggressor, according to legal observers.

(Editing by Scott Malone and Will Dunham)