LITTLE FALLS, Minn. – When it was all over Tuesday, moments after he had been swiftly found guilty on four counts of murder for shooting two teenage intruders in his home, Byron Smith did not stand in respect for the jury.
Instead Smith, 65, sat at the defense table, silent.
Everyone around him rose to attention as jury members filed out of the Morrison County courtroom where during the tense, searing trial, they all had heard audio recordings of gunshots booming out, then of two teenagers groaning and screaming, then Smith muttering as they lay dead on his basement floor: “I don’t see them as human. I see them as vermin.”
Smith was sentenced immediately after the jury’s verdict to a mandatory term of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Though Smith had been free on bail during the trial, deputies took him into custody as he left the courtroom.
Smith’s attorney, Steve Meshbesher, told the judge that Smith plans to appeal.
Asked if he wanted to speak before his sentencing, Smith said only, “Thank you for the opportunity, your honor. I decline.”
Jurors took three hours to deliver their verdict. They were charged with answering the question of whether Smith acted as a reasonable person would have under the circumstances when he killed 18-year-old Haile Kifer and 17-year-old Nick Brady, unarmed cousins who broke into his home through a window.
Family members of the victims cried quietly as the verdicts were read.
The verdict and immediate sentencing inside a packed courtroom brought the nationally watched trial to a close. Smith had become a symbol in the countrywide debate over so-called castle doctrine laws, raising questions about how far a homeowner can go to defend himself and his property.
‘Robbed of their lives’
Relatives took the opportunity to give victim impact statements before Judge Douglas Anderson imposed two concurrent life sentences.
Shot on Thanksgiving Day 2012, the two teenage cousins loved family gatherings, Kifer’s aunt Laurie Skipper said. “Now there are two empty seats at every one of them.”
Brady’s grandmother, Bonnie Schaeffel, told the judge: “Smith was robbed of things. Nick and Haile were robbed of their lives.”
Prosecutor Pete Orput had asked the judge to impose consecutive life sentences as a symbolic gesture, but the judge declined.
Orput said outside the courtroom that he was grateful that justice was done but also saddened. “We’ve got two dead kids over nothing,” he said.
Defense attorney Steve Meshbesher said late Tuesday that Smith was “very distraught, he was emotionally upset.”
Meshbesher told throngs of reporters after the trial that he wasn’t allowed to show jurors all the evidence that he felt was necessary.
He had sought, for instance, to introduce evidence of Kifer and Brady’s previous troubles with the law, including Brady’s connection to prior burglaries. Anderson ruled, though, that Smith didn’t know who he was shooting that day, so their histories or reputations weren’t relevant.
“I think [jurors] had a very limited view of the case,” Meshbesher said.
Setting a trap
Prosecutors contended from the beginning that Smith had crossed a legal line into cold execution when he continued to shoot Brady and Kifer as they descended his basement stairs about 10 minutes apart. They quickly charged him with second-degree intentional murder and later secured a grand jury indictment for first-degree premeditated murder.
They argued that Smith, whose home and adjoining property had earlier break-ins, had planned to take matters into his own hands.
In closing arguments Tuesday morning, Orput said that Smith was setting a trap for a neighbor girl who he believed had been behind the break-ins.
The prosecutor contended Smith saw her drive on his street that morning and set the plan in motion: moving his truck to appear as if he weren’t home, activating an audio recorder in his basement, loading his guns and settling into a basement reading chair with water, snacks and a novel.
Orput said Smith had a tarp ready in his basement to wrap the body of Brady after he shot him.
“Some of you hunters will think this sounds like deer hunting,” Orput told the jury.
Later, showing a photograph of the chair where Smith sat in his basement, he called the scene Smith’s “deer stand.”
Orput questioned why Smith didn’t call police, why he didn’t shout a warning before shooting. “Is that reasonable?” he asked the jury.
Meshbesher said Smith was increasingly scared as burglaries increased at his home, then was frozen in fear once he saw shadows outside and heard someone break glass in his upstairs bedroom window the day of the shootings.
He said if Brady and Kifer hadn’t broken in, there would have been no trial.
“Homes are where we live to feel safe, and it’s our castle in this country,” Meshbesher said. Smith, he added, grew more and more afraid to live in his own home. He’d been carrying a gun around with him inside.
A case about limits
Prosecutors used Smith’s own chilling audio recordings of the shootings against him, playing them for the jury three times over the course of the trial.
In the closings, the jury again heard glass breaking, booming gunshots and the groans and screams of the two teens. They also heard Smith utter, “you’re dead” and call Kifer names.
As the recording of the shots rang out in the silent courtroom, Smith sat at the defense table with his hands in his face, trembling. A juror cried.
Orput also played excerpts from Smith’s recordings before and after the shootings when he was presumed to be talking to himself.
Before the shootings he can be heard asking to see a lawyer — what Orput called a rehearsal. After, he talked about how he did his “civic duty” and said “like I give a damn who she is.”
Smith’s friend and neighbor Bill Anderson was visibly upset after the verdict. He had testified in the trial about how fearful Smith had become after repeated break-ins and said Tuesday that Smith was the victim.
“Byron Smith is one of the nicest gentlemen you’re ever going to meet,” he said. “If one of you people would have a flat tire in front of the courthouse today … that gentleman would go buy you a new tire and send you on your way.”
After the verdicts, Morrison County Sheriff Michel Wetzel implied that some watching the case had turned it into something it wasn’t.
“This isn’t a case about whether you have the right to protect yourself in your home. You very clearly do. That’s a given,” Wetzel said.
“Rather, this was a case about where the limits are, before and after a threat to you or your home occurs. In this case, a jury decided there are limits and they decided where they are.”
Staff writer Jennifer Brooks contributed to this report.