By Helen Freund
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - The shooting death of retired NFL player Will Smith was an "execution," Louisiana prosecutors said in court on Tuesday, opening a high-profile murder trial in which the accused is seeking immunity under a "stand your ground" state law.
Cardell Hayes, 29, is accused of gunning down Smith and injuring his wife in what prosecutors describe as a road rage incident. He faces a mandatory life sentence if convicted of murdering the former defensive lineman and prominent team member of the New Orleans Saints during their 2010 Super Bowl victory.
Celebrity athletes including Saints quarterback Drew Brees crowded into a courtroom to hear attorneys' opening statements in a case where the defense is arguing self-defense.
Louisiana is one of a number of U.S. states with so-called "stand your ground" laws, under which a jury could find Smith's shooting death justified if Hayes was acting to save his life.
Smith, who was 34 and had retired from the National Football League in 2014, was shot eight times on the night of April 9, according to authorities. His body was found slumped over the steering wheel of his Mercedes SUV. Smith's wife, Racquel, sustained two gunshots to each leg but survived.
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"It was an execution in the streets," state assistant district attorney Jason Napoli told jurors, arguing Hayes gloated afterwards.
The shooting unfolded as Smith and his wife were returning from a dinner in the city's Lower Garden District.
Around 11:30 p.m. CT, Smith ran into the back of a Hummer driven by Hayes, authorities have said. As the former NFL player drove away, Hayes followed him and crashed into Smith's car at a nearby intersection, causing his SUV to strike a third car.
Both sides agree that the men got into a heated altercation. Prosecutors describe Hayes as leaving his vehicle as an angry aggressor displaying a .45 caliber handgun.
Defense attorneys, however, contend that Hayes fired only after Smith threatened him, retreated to his vehicle and reached inside the glove compartment, presumably to retrieve a gun.
Authorities said Smith never fired the handgun later recovered from his SUV. He was legally drunk at the time.
Hayes, a tow truck driver, has pleaded not guilty to charges that include attempted second-degree murder and aggravated criminal damage to property.
"His life was in danger, he acted upon that danger, and unfortunately a man lost his life," defense attorney Jay Daniels told jurors. "The law allows for that."
(Editing by Letitia Stein and Alan Crosby)