LITTLE FALLS, Minn. – At the local VFW, Byron Smith supporters filed into the rented room for a monthly meeting to strategize how they can help bring justice to a man they believe was wronged.
In the local paper, a steady stream of letters to the editor debate whether Smith should have been convicted of first-degree premeditated murder for killing two teenagers who broke into his home on Thanksgiving Day 2012.
On the Internet, the group’s polished website criticizes law enforcement, displays purported evidence and recounts how Smith feared for his life after a series of prior break-ins at his home along the Mississippi River.
Nearly a year after Smith’s case drew national attention amid intense debate over what rights homeowners have to defend their property — ending with a jury swiftly convicting him of murder — Smith’s backers are not giving up on their efforts to drum up support for the 66-year-old. Meanwhile Smith sits in prison serving a life sentence, waiting for his lawyers to file appeal arguments to the state Supreme Court — arguments that are expected this week.
The jury took only three hours to deliberate last April after prosecutors presented evidence portraying Smith as a vigilante who sat waiting for burglars in his home, then coldly executed 18-year-old Haile Kifer and 17-year-old Nick Brady by continuing to shoot them after they no longer posed a threat. A surveillance-style audio recording that Smith had set up chilled the courtroom with sounds of gunshots booming, of the two teenagers groaning and screaming and then of Smith muttering how he saw them as “vermin” as they lay wrapped in tarps on his floor.
At a Thursday night meeting at the VFW, Smith’s supporters talked not only of trying to help free him from prison, but also of guarding their rights to defend themselves and their homes.
“There’s so many of us that say that if this had happened to us, we’d do the same thing,” said 76-year-old Beverly Nouis, who stood inside the meeting room with about 45 other supporters, a cross hanging from her neck. Nouis said she’s never met Smith, but felt compelled to put an ad in the local newspaper to form the group, now called Citizens for Justice for Byron Smith Coalition. “I feel he’s an innocent person,” she said.
Relatives of Brady and others say the support is misinformed and disruptive.
Seeing frequent letters to the editor in the Morrison County Record and other signs of support for Smith has been “extraordinarily painful,” said Steve Schaeffel, Brady’s grandfather. Schaeffel said he and others in the family know the teens were in the wrong for entering Smith’s house, and they believe in citizens’ rights to protect themselves, but this wasn’t a case of that, he said. “They’re blind to the facts … Smith had so many opportunities to do things differently. But he didn’t. He chose the path that he chose and now he faces the consequences.”
Retired Little Falls police Officer Thor Lindquist said he hadn’t heard of the Smith support group at his regular coffee gatherings or at church. He said he thinks it’s a fringe gathering. They “can waste their money any way they want,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to get anyplace.”
One of Smith’s attorneys, Steve Meshbesher, said he declined to speak to the group saying it would be inappropriate while Smith’s case is on appeal. Meshbesher said after the trial that he planned a vigorous appeal because they weren’t allowed to show jurors all the evidence they felt was necessary, including testimony that would have implicated Brady in prior burglaries at Smith’s house.
Seeking a ‘positive outcome’
The group says on its website that its mission is to inform the public about facts that weren’t allowed at Smith’s trial, to assist in a “positive outcome” for Smith’s appeal, and to advocate for state law on the justifiable taking of a life.
In Minnesota, a person can take a life to avert death or great bodily harm or to prevent a felony in his or her home. Juries are instructed to consider the circumstances and whether it was a decision a reasonable person would make in light of the perceived danger.
At the VFW, coalition supporters sat at long corridors of tables, some of them nursing beers or sodas. Several questioned the parameters of the state’s law and other so-called castle doctrine laws across the country.
Speaker and volunteer investigator James Rothstein, now mayor of the tiny town of St. Martin, Minn., said that he urged citizens worried about break-ins in his area not to live in fear, telling them, “open your doors, open your windows, raise your shades and load your shotguns.”
Some zeroed in on the prior burglaries at Smith’s house, arguing that it wouldn’t have escalated to shootings if local authorities had worked harder to stop the break-ins.
Smith’s brother, Bruce Smith, who moved away from Little Falls decades ago, urged the crowd to bring officials’ malfeasance to light.
“The more you dig this stuff up and stir this boiling pot up, the better it is for the whole county,” he told the group. “And by the way, you help my brother.”
Brady’s grandmother, Bonnie Schaeffel said she believes the police handled the case in a professional way. She said the group’s website contains exaggerations and lies and defames members the families and others who weren’t involved.
“Is this about how many people you can hurt because you didn’t like the outcome of the trial?” she asked. “We have been trying to let this die down and let the town heal … and get on with our lives.”
Peter Orput, the prosecutor who tried the case, said he believes a very small group is disregarding the facts and believing what they want. “Really good citizens of Morrison County heard every bit of the evidence and had no trouble at all finding this guy guilty of two counts of first-degree murder,” he said.