Little Falls trial pits the right of self-defense vs. murder

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 14, 2014 - 7:33 AM

Byron Smith, charged with shooting two teens, will head to court Monday.

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Byron Smith’s brother walked past the bedroom window where Brady and Kifer broke in at Smith’s home on Thanksgiving Day 2012. Smith shot the teens and waited a day before reaching out to a neighbor, who called authorities. Audio of the killings in Smith’s basement was recorded.

Photo: File photo by RENÉE JONES SCHNEIDER • reneejones@startribune.com,

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- 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.

Mourned teenagers

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  • Smith’s home along the Mississippi River, shown in 2012. Smith has been free on bail, and tensions in the neighborhood have been high.

  • Cousins who broke in: The histories of Haile Kifer, 18, and Nick Brady, 17, won’t be a large part of Byron Smith’s murder trial, a judge has ruled.

  • Nicholas Brady, 17, was shot after he and a cousin entered the Little Falls, Minn., house of Byron David Smith. He died Nov. 22, 2012. ORG XMIT: MIN1301301215562592 ORG XMIT: MIN1304251906330654

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