LITTLE FALLS, Minn. – For 17 months, they’ve debated whether Byron Smith acted in self-defense or killed two teenage intruders in cold blood.
For 17 months, the people in this river town of 8,300 and the rest of the country have wondered what really happened inside Smith’s house that Thanksgiving Day in 2012.
The evidence — the chilling screams and booms of gunshots on surveillance audio, the graphic autopsy photos that are part of the formal court record — has been presented. The answer will soon be in the hands of a jury.
The 12 men and women who will decide Smith’s fate won’t hear from Smith himself, however. He waived his right to testify Monday as defense attorneys rested their case. Closing arguments are slated to begin Tuesday morning, and then the jury will deliberate whether Smith should be found guilty of murder.
Smith, 65, claims that he acted in defense of himself and his home when he killed 18-year-old Haile Kifer and 17-year-old Nick Brady after they broke into his home. His defense attorneys tried to show evidence that Smith was terrified after a set of prior break-ins in which guns were stolen.
Prosecutors say Smith, a retired State Department employee who set up security at embassies, had set out to take matters into his own hands with the intruders. They contend he waited in ambush, then coldly murdered the unarmed teens as they descended his basement stairs about 10 minutes apart, continuing to shoot after they no longer posed a threat.
He faces two counts each of first-degree premeditated murder and second-degree intentional murder.
Jurors will have to decide whether Smith acted as a reasonable person would have under the circumstances. Minnesota law allows a person to take a life to avert death or great bodily harm or to prevent a felony in his or her home. Jurors were instructed to consider whether the defendant perceived the gravity of the situation in a reasonable way and whether his decision to shoot was reasonable in light of the danger. Because Smith was in his home, he had no duty to retreat .
The case has become a flash point nationally as communities debate so-called “castle doctrine” laws and how far a homeowner can go to protect himself and his property.
Testimony of family, friends
Defense attorneys Monday called their final witnesses in the case — friends and family who testified that the Byron Smith they know is an honest man.
Steve Meshbesher, Smith’s lead counsel, said outside the courtroom that he advised his client not to testify, though Smith was willing. There was no reason for Smith to take the stand because jurors had already heard him through audiotaped police interviews, he said.
The prosecution had played the interview on the first day of the trial a week earlier. On it, Smith calmly and politely told a sheriff’s sergeant how he assumed the intruders were armed thieves who had been targeting him and how he decided it was shoot or be shot.
Prosecutors also played chilling surveillance audiotapes that Smith had recorded of the shootings and the aftermath, when he continued talking, apparently to himself.
The recording captured the sound of two booming gunshots as he shot Brady first, then Brady’s groan as he was hit. Then Smith fired again saying, “You’re dead.”
Smith moved the boy’s body to a basement workshop to prevent him from bleeding on the carpet, he explained to police officers as they questioned him later.
About 10 minutes after he shot Brady, Kifer came down the basement stairs calling “Nick.” The recordings captured more gunshots, then the sound of Kifer falling down.
“Oh, sorry about that,” Smith told her.
“Oh my God!” Kifer screamed, while gunshots rang out.
“You’re dying … bitch,” Smith responded.
Prosecutors said Smith fired nine times using two different guns.
Later, he is heard on the recording saying he did his “civic duty,” and “I don’t see them as human. I see them as vermin.”
Smith left the teens’ bodies in a basement workroom until the following day when he called a neighbor, asking for help finding a lawyer. The neighbor called police.
When asked outside the courtroom whether Smith might want to address the audiotape, Meshbesher said, “I’m going to address it for him” in closing arguments.
The weeklong trial was marked with several motions for a mistrial by Meshbesher, who sought to bring in evidence about trouble in Brady’s and Kifer’s pasts. After the shootings, Brady was linked to two felony burglaries of Smith’s property in the previous months when a friend of his pleaded guilty to helping Brady steal items from Smith’s residence. Kifer had 19 “contacts” with law enforcement ranging from traffic stops to reports of suspicious activity or threats.
Judge Douglas Anderson had ruled before the trial that the victims’ reputations and histories weren’t relevant because Smith didn’t know who Brady and Kifer were when he fired his gun.
Smith had thought that a neighbor girl had been involved with the break-ins, possibly keeping watch, according to testimony at trial.
Friends described Kifer, a senior at Little Falls High School, as a kind girl and competitive athlete who struggled with drug abuse.
Brady, friends said, was an outgoing junior at Pillager High School, who worked at his father’s tree-trimming business.
Byron Smith’s brother Bruce Smith, neighbor Kathleen Lange and 16-year-old neighbor John Lange testified that they believe Smith is an honest person. Smith has been living with the Langes since the shootings.
On his cross-exam of John Lange, prosecutor Pete Orput asked: “It’s well known around here that you don’t mess with that guy”?
Meshbesher objected to that question and asked for a mistrial.
After court recessed for the day, Brady’s grandfather, Steve Schaeffel, said that mentally and emotionally the family had been “a wreck” through the trial and that hearing and seeing the evidence of the cousins’ deaths was “brutal.”
Attorneys on both sides are slated to give their closing arguments starting at 9 a.m. Tuesday. The jury will be sequestered for their deliberations.