LITTLE FALLS, Minn. - A bright yellow line has been painted along the front entrance to the wooded property where Byron Smith killed two teenage intruders nearly 17 months ago. Just beyond, signs hang from a chain across Smith’s driveway warning trespassers to “keep out” or face prosecution.
But Monday, after months of legal motions and pretrial hearings, the homeowner will face prosecution as jury selection begins in one of the most chilling murder cases in recent Minnesota history.
The questions that Smith’s 12 peers will have to answer in a Morrison County courtroom in the coming days are the same ones that have captivated many in this scenic river town of 8,300 since news of the shooting broke shortly after Thanksgiving 2012.
Did Smith act as a reasonable person would have by shooting the intruders in defense of himself or his home? Or did he cross a legal line and coldly execute them by continuing to fire after they were injured?
It’s a case that has received national attention as “stand-your-ground” and castle-doctrine laws have come under sharp scrutiny in recent years, dividing communities.
In Minnesota, a person can justifiably 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 have made in light of the danger perceived.”
“Everybody’s going to understand that he was scared at the start,” said Ed Butterfoss, a law professor at Hamline University. “But was he scared when the kid was laying on the ground shot?”
While friends and relatives are still mourning the deaths of 17-year-old Nick Brady and 18-year-old Haile Kifer, the trial will focus on Smith and his state of mind during the break-in that ended with the teenage cousins dead on his basement floor. Smith had fired several shots at each as they descended his basement stairs about 10 minutes apart. He then dragged their bodies to a workshop and waited a day before calling a neighbor, who in turn called authorities.
The defense will portray Smith, 65, as a man terrified to his core after enduring several prior break-ins in which burglars stole firearms and brazenly kicked in a door. Smith didn’t know how many people were breaking in when he heard his window being smashed that Thanksgiving Day or whether the trespassers were armed, the defense contends. He was “afraid to be in his own home,” his attorney argued, according to court papers.
Prosecutors will portray Smith as a calculating vigilante, a retired U.S. State Department worker who had set up security systems for embassies, sitting in ambush with loaded weapons, light bulbs unscrewed from their sockets overhead, waiting to kill the unarmed intruders. They say Smith’s own audio recordings of the shootings reveal in chilling detail how he uttered “you’re dead” after shooting Brady three times and called Kifer “bitch” before dragging her, already wounded, into his workshop and firing a final shot beneath her chin and into her cranium. Prosecutors say Smith told authorities he killed Kifer with a “good, clean finishing shot.”
Elm Street unrest
On Elm Street, where the road dead-ends at Smith’s driveway, residents have long been divided over the shootings.
Some, protective of their neighbor, have feared retribution toward Smith, who remains free on bail. Strangers driving down the lightly traveled street are noticed by neighbors, who plainly stare them down from driveways and front yards.
Authorities have been called to the street at least nine times since the shootings, including a couple of times for reports of suspicious vehicles and twice for disputes among neighbors. One neighbor called to complain that Smith and another neighbor had been snapping photos of them from the road. In another call, Smith reported that a neighbor pushed snow onto his property.
Smith, a Little Falls native, once volunteered as a Scout leader, neighbors said. He paid area teens to work around his house and allowed a neighbor’s son to practice with his band in his garage.
Now, his property is marked with foreboding signs and the yellow line at the end of the driveway.
It’s a line that friends and families of the dead teens wish they had never crossed.
Conflicting portraits of the fresh-faced teenagers have emerged in the months since the shootings.
Friends described Kifer, a senior at Little Falls High School, as a kind girl and competitive athlete in diving and gymnastics. She also struggled with drug abuse, they said. Authorities have said Kifer had 19 “contacts” with law enforcement, ranging from traffic stops to reports of suspicious activity or threats.
Brady, friends said, was an outgoing, bright-smiling junior who went to school 30 miles up the road at Pillager High School and worked at his father’s tree-trimming business.
But shortly after Brady’s death, authorities found six bottles of prescription medicine in his car, stolen in a burglary at another home the day before the shootings.
Brady was later linked to two felony burglaries of Smith’s property in the months before the shooting. Friend Cody M. Kasper pleaded guilty to helping Brady steal items from Smith’s residence in the summer of 2012 and again on Oct. 27 of that year. Kasper, who once did yard work for Smith, said that he served as a lookout for Brady, never entering the house or garage, but standing nearby with his cellphone in hand to warn Brady if someone approached.
Another friend told police that Brady kept a stash of guns in his bedroom closet, a couple of which came from Byron Smith’s house, according to documents. The friend said he had once been on Smith’s property with Brady, checking to see whether anyone was home, and that Brady had scoped out other houses in Sartell and Little Falls as burglary targets, the documents said.
Photos of Brady as he posed with guns were posted on his Facebook page.
Just how much jurors will hear about the teens’ character or any prior “bad acts” will be limited, however, after a recent ruling by Judge Douglas Anderson.
The victims’ histories and reputations aren’t relevant, Anderson ruled, because there has been no evidence suggesting that Smith “knew who Nicholas Brady was, knew that it was Brady who had burglarized his home or believed that it was Brady who had burglarized his home on a prior occasion or occasions.”
Hard to pick a jury
While it’s likely almost everyone in the Morrison County jury pool will have heard details about the killings, defense attorneys have not asked for a change of venue.
Legal observers say Smith may have a better chance of winning the case in a rural county where residents place a high value on their right to own guns and defend their property.
The killings have been debated at coffee tables throughout the area. Many in town know families or friends of the victims and the defendant.
“I think most people think that he went too far,” said one customer of the Royal Restaurant, who declined to give his name.
“Yeah, until it happens to them,” another man shot back. “You don’t know how your adrenaline goes.”
“I think it’ll be hard to pick a jury,” said Bob Lorenz, who sat with buddies drinking coffee. “Most people have their minds made up already.”
Attorneys on both sides have said new details will raise questions for the jurors at trial.