Pete Orput, Washington County's chief attorney and a veteran Hennepin County homicide prosecutor, has been recruited to handle the high-profile murder case against a man accused of shooting two teens in Little Falls, a case which has sharply divided the city's 8,300 residents.
Byron David Smith, 64, confessed to killing Nick Brady, 17, and his cousin Haile Kifer, 18, with several gunshots when they broke into his home along the Mississippi River on Nov. 22. Smith has been charged with two counts of second-degree murder and is out on bail.
Neither teenager was armed.
Some residents have described the shootings as self-defense. Others say they were executions.
Orput said the case will be "contentious and controversial." He said he is a hunting and firearms enthusiast -- as well as a National Rifle Association member -- but he plans to prosecute Smith vigorously because he shot the teenagers so many times.
"Somebody has got to stand up for these two dead kids," he said. "I'm going to give it everything I've got. I have some strong feelings about the evidence I've reviewed."
Morrison County sought help because of an unusually heavy load of nine homicide-related cases, said felony prosecutor Todd Kosovich, with only five attorneys to handle those cases plus all of the rest of the county's legal business, including civil and juvenile cases.
"We are so danged happy to have him," Kosovich said Monday of Orput's involvement.
An audiotape of the killings showed that each teenager was shot three times. Morrison County authorities believe the two stole pills a day earlier from the Little Falls home of 68-year-old Richard Johnson. Six pill bottles from Johnson's house were found in Brady's car after the shootings.
Orput declined to discuss how he will prosecute the case, but he said the trial will come down to whether Smith was justified in killing the teenagers. Minnesota law states that people can use deadly force to protect themselves in their homes "if reasonable and necessary," but doesn't explain the extent or means of that defense, he said.
Orput was elected Washington County attorney in 2010 and has tried at least 20 homicide cases statewide in his 24-year career.
Assisting Orput will be Brent Wartner, his new first assistant attorney. Wartner came to Washington County recently from the Minnesota Department of Corrections, where he had been general counsel and director of policy and legal services since 2006. He also has been a Minnesota assistant attorney general and a special assistant Dakota County attorney.
The Minnesota attorney general's office rejected Morrison County's request for help on grounds that prosecutors there "seem well-positioned to handle such a trial," according to the Associated Press.
Kosovich said Orput's involvement in the Smith case, which has received statewide attention, reduces Morrison County's homicide caseload to eight, he said.
"I've never had more than two on my calendar for the 8 1/2 years I've been here," Kosovich said. To what extent Morrison County will help with the Smith prosecution hasn't been determined, he said.
"This rash of homicide cases is well beyond anything we could have anticipated," Morrison County Attorney Brian Middendorf said Monday in a news release. "My staffing level is not sufficient to provide the resources necessary to handle the contentious Smith prosecution. That is why I have accepted the generous offer of assistance extended by Mr. Orput."
Smith's next scheduled court appearance is Jan. 22 at 1 p.m. in Morrison County District Court.
Kevin Giles 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles