Byron Smith’s appeal for a new trial in the killings of two teenage intruders in his Little Falls home was rejected Wednesday when the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed his murder convictions.
The state’s high court found that the 67-year-old former State Department employee, who is serving life in prison, received a fair trial for the Thanksgiving 2012 shootings of two unarmed cousins who broke into his home.
The highly anticipated ruling comes nearly two years after a jury found Smith guilty in a case that drew national attention amid debate over so-called castle doctrine laws, raising questions about how far a homeowner can go to defend himself and his property.
Prosecutors argued that Smith, whose home had been a prior target of burglaries, sat waiting with a gun in his basement and coldly executed 18-year-old Haile Kifer and 17-year-old Nick Brady as they descended his stairs about 10 minutes apart, continuing to shoot them after they no longer posed a threat.
Smith had claimed he was terrified after guns were stolen in prior burglaries, and was defending himself.
Prosecutor Pete Orput said Wednesday that he hoped the Supreme Court ruling would bring comfort to the victims’ families.
“I also hope it brings solace to the community,” he said. “I know there’s a group of people who don’t want to accept … reality and they choose to ignore quite a bit of the evidence. The Supreme Court didn’t ignore anything. They were assiduous in reviewing the evidence.”
But Smith’s attorney said Smith is poised to appeal to the federal court system.
“We’re not done. We are far from it,” attorney Steve Meshbesher said. “Whether it’s us or another lawyer, I don’t know. But I’m going to strongly suggest he keep on fighting the fight because he got a very unfair deal.”
Smith’s attorneys argued on appeal that they had been prohibited from giving a complete defense and that the trial was full of errors. They had asked the high court to vacate Smith’s conviction and either dismiss his first-degree murder indictment or send his case back to district court for a new trial.
The state’s high court found that most of the alleged errors listed by the defense weren’t made. Those that were, the court noted, would not have affected the case’s outcome.
“I see them as vermin”
In Minnesota, a person can 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 make in light of the perceived danger.
Prosecutors argued that Smith, whose home had been a target of prior burglaries, lured the teens to break into his house by moving his vehicle from his property, parking it several blocks away and walking back home through his backyard that morning.
A surveillance-style audio recording that Smith had set up inside his home captured sounds from that day, including glass breaking, gunshots, the teenagers groaning and screaming, and then Smith talking to himself for hours. He muttered statements such as, “I was doing my civic duty,” and “I don’t see them as human, I see them as vermin.”
Smith wrapped the teens’ bodies in tarps, dragged them into a backroom and waited a day before calling a neighbor, who in turn called authorities.
Besides alleging several procedural errors in Smith’s grand jury indictment and during his trial, defense attorneys argued that they weren’t allowed to present certain pieces of evidence to the jury.
They wanted, for instance, to call an expert witness to testify about Smith suffering from “critical-incident stress,” impairing his ability to hear events leading up to the second shooting.
But a reasonable jury would have reached the same verdict with such testimony, the high court found, pointing to contradictory evidence.
Defense attorneys had also tried to introduce testimony about Brady and Kifer’s prior bad acts, including Brady’s alleged involvement in a previous burglary at Smith’s house.
Morrison County District Judge Douglas Anderson excluded that testimony, finding that at the time of the shootings there was no evidence that Smith knew who Brady was or believed it was Brady who had burglarized his home before.
Anderson briefly closed the courtroom before the trial’s opening statements to reiterate that he wouldn’t allow such testimony from two teens. Defense attorneys claimed on appeal that the closing violated Smith’s right to a public trial. The court found that the brief proceeding was “administrative in nature” and did not harm Smith’s rights.
The Supreme Court also ordered the district court to award the victims’ families nearly $19,500 in restitution to pay for cemetery headstones.