Tevlin: The bright line between self-defense and murder

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 29, 2014 - 11:44 PM

At a news conference held after Byron Smith was found guilty, friends and family members of Nick Brady and Haile Kifer applauded law enforcement members involved in the investigation.

Photo: DAVID JOLES • djoles@startribune.com,

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- “This case is big. This is Minnesota’s Trayvon Martin case,” prosecutor Pete Orput said before the Byron Smith murder trial.

Except it never really was.

Unlike the Florida case that became a lightning rod on race and the boundaries of self-defense, the Smith case got national attention but never gained the traction some predicted among gun proponents.

Joe Olson thinks he knows why.

Olson is as big of a gun advocate as you will find. The Hamline University law professor has worked on behalf of gun owners at the Capitol for 25 years and written book chapters on self-defense. Olson is president of Academics for the Second Amendment and once served on the board of directors of the National Rifle Association.

But just before the verdict, I asked Olson about those who say Smith’s actions were justified.

“The only one who was really saying that was his lawyer, and he doesn’t really have any alternative,” Olson said. “It was clearly a bad shooting.”

Olson said that “everybody I talk to at the shooting range knows Smith crossed a pretty clear line. [The law] allows a homeowner to stop a felony in the home with deadly force. It does not allow a subsequent murder after the danger has passed. Anyone who has taken a carry permit course in Minnesota knows that.”

So, apparently did the jury, which quickly convicted Smith on all counts for the murders of Haile Kifer and Nick Brady.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, the Legislature’s strongest gun rights proponent, agreed that “justice prevailed.”

“It proves we do have a castle doctrine and it does work,” Cornish said. “If somebody tries to claim the doctrine in absurd times, it doesn’t hold.”

A website was set up after the shootings to collect donations for Smith’s defense. This week, it contained just one donation of $50.

Something out of ‘Fargo’

“It’s a quiet place, a place for people who desire a safe haven to plant their roots,” the website for the city of Little Falls says.

It’s also home to aviation hero Charles Lindbergh. A zoo. A fishing museum. It’s hard to find a place that is more Minnesotan than Little Falls.

But the small town is now also the place where the idyllic and mundane gave way to fear, then terror.

Now, outsiders are less likely to know of the town slogan, “Where the Mississippi pauses,” than Smith’s coldblooded phrase, “a good, clean finishing shot.”

This is what happens when a story of troubled teens, drugs, burglaries, a mysterious and fearful man and a killing unfolds.

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