The attorney for a Little Falls man convicted of murdering two unarmed teenagers who broke into his home on Thanksgiving 2012 is now petitioning a federal judge for his client’s release from a lifetime prison sentence.
Steven Meshbesher argued Friday in a memorandum attached to a federal habeas corpus petition that a Morrison County District Court judge violated Byron Smith’s right to a public trial by temporarily closing the courtroom during his April 2014 jury trial. The state’s high court later misapplied federal law in upholding Smith’s life sentence without parole, Meshbesher added.
“This case was an emotional case, a tough case, a hard case,” Meshbesher wrote in a U.S. District Court filing that at times quoted 16th-century English scholars. “But hard cases should not make bad law.”
Smith, 68, is being held in an Oak Park Heights Prison after being convicted of the killings of cousins Nicholas Brady, 17, and Haile Kifer, 18, in a case that drew national attention amid debate over how far a homeowner can go to defend himself and his property.
Prosecutors argued that Smith, whose home had previously been burglarized, sat armed and waiting in his basement and coldly executed Kifer and Brady as they descended his stairs about 10 minutes apart, continuing to fire after they no longer posed a threat. Smith claimed he was defending himself and was fearful after having guns stolen in prior burglaries.
At trial, Meshbesher sought to elicit testimony from a friend of Brady’s who previously burglarized Smith’s home. Over Meshbesher’s objections, the judge temporarily closed the courtroom before opening statements for a hearing on the admissibility of that testimony. As a result, Meshbesher wrote Friday, Smith’s convictions, sentence and confinement are “unlawful and were unconstitutionally obtained.”
Meshbesher wrote that the state’s high court later rendered “a decision contrary to clearly established federal law” when it affirmed Smith’s convictions last year. In doing so, the Minnesota Supreme Court rejected Smith’s constitutional challenge, holding that the closure in his trial was “administrative in nature” and was “too trivial to amount to a Sixth Amendment violation.”