LITTLE FALLS, MINN. – A Little Falls man accused of shooting two teenage intruders at his home on Thanksgiving Day has been indicted on first-degree, premeditated murder charges in connection with the killings.
The charges, spelled out Thursday during a 15-minute hearing at the Morrison County Courthouse, came after a grand jury spent two days this week reviewing evidence and listening to testimony in the state’s case against Byron David Smith, 64.
Smith, a retired U.S. State Department employee who set up security systems for embassies, was initially charged in November with second-degree murder in the deaths of Haile Kifer, 18, and her cousin, Nick Brady, 17, as they broke into his home along the backwaters of the Mississippi River.
Prosecutors have said that Smith shot the teens, who were unarmed, multiple times as they walked down the stairs to his basement about 10 minutes apart.
In Minnesota, a premeditated murder case cannot be prosecuted unless a grand jury has convened and issued a first-degree murder indictment. A conviction on the charge would mean life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Self-defense or too far?
The gruesome nature of the killings of Kifer and Brady has drawn widespread attention to Little Falls and divided many in this Mississippi River town 100 miles north of the Twin Cities over the issue of how far a homeowner can go to defend himself and protect his property.
Some of Smith’s neighbors and relatives have said that he was acting in self-defense after a series of burglaries at his home in the weeks and months preceding the shootings. Court records in a related case against one of Brady’s friends allege that Brady took part in at least two burglaries of Smith’s property last summer and fall.
“He was scared,” his attorney, Steve Meshbesher, has said of Smith.
“Nicholas Brady and Haile Kifer broke into Mr. Smith’s home by shattering a bedroom window with a metal pipe,” Meshbesher said in a news release issued after the hearing. “Mr. Smith did not seek Brady and Kifer out. They sought him by violently breaking into his home on Thanksgiving.”
But prosecutors have argued at earlier court hearings that Smith’s actions before, during and after the killings went far beyond self-defense.
Prosecutors said at a December court hearing that Smith had videotape of the teens outside his home before they broke in. They said he also had an audiotape of the killings that recorded Smith telling Brady “You’re dead” in the seconds after he was shot. He later taunted Kifer after shooting her several times, calling her “bitch” as he fired a shot beneath her chin and into her cranium, prosecutors said.
“He shot Haile Kifer three times in the head,” prosecutor Todd Kosovich said at a court hearing in December. “There’s no way that’s self-defense.”
Smith then dragged the bodies into a workshop where they remained before police were called to the home the next day.
Smith was released from jail in December after posting $50,000 bail. At that time, he was ordered to turn over his passport and surrender all firearms to law enforcement. He also was prohibited from any contact with the families of the victims.
Arguing about rearrest
His court appearance Thursday, with Meshbesher at his side, was his first since December.
Wearing a gray suit and carrying a tan overcoat, Smith sat quietly as Meshbesher and Washington County Attorney Pete Orput, who is prosecuting the case at the request of Morrison County, debated whether Smith should be arrested again.
Orput, citing the serious nature of the offense and the prospect that Smith could spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted, argued that Smith is a flight risk.
He asked that unconditional bail be set at $2 million.
“Friends could harbor him if he decided to leave,” Orput said.
But Meshbesher said that his client “has abided by all the terms and conditions” of his release, set by the court in December. He said jailing Smith again and resetting bail were “not necessary.
“He has not gone anywhere or done anything” without the court knowing of it, Meshbesher said.
District Judge Douglas Anderson, citing Smith’s clean record before the shootings and the fact that the shootings occurred after intruders entered Smith’s home, ultimately decided that Smith would not be detained and that conditions of his bail would remain unchanged.
Smith’s next court appearance is set for July 1.