Defense attorneys for Byron Smith, who was convicted of killing two teenage intruders in his Little Falls, Minn., home in 2012, argued Thursday to the Minnesota Supreme Court that he didn’t get a fair trial and deserves a new one.
During the hearing in front of the state’s highest court, the six justices lobbed questions at the defense attorney and prosecutor about the April 2014 trial, zeroing in on whether a brief courtroom closure might have prevented Smith from having a proper public trial.
“This is about justice … he did not get a fair trial,” attorney Steven Meshbesher told them. “The only way to fix it is to grant him a new trial.”
Smith, 67, a retired U.S. State Department employee, was convicted of first-degree premeditated murder in the Thanksgiving 2012 deaths of Haile Kifer, 18, and Nick Brady, 17, shooting them after they broke into his home. He is serving a life sentence without the posibility of release.
Smith’s attorneys are asking the court to vacate his conviction and either dismiss his first-degree murder indictment or send his case back to district court for a new trial. Prosecutors have said the claims are “an irrelevant sideshow” that “do no more than nibble around the edges” of the case and wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the trial.
Watching the legal wrangling were about three dozen friends, family and neighbors of Brady, Kifer and Smith, packing the courtroom pews.
“It’s something you never get over,” said Bonnie Schaeffel, Brady’s grandmother, who drove from Little Falls to St. Paul. “It’s the only thing we can do; we can’t get him a birthday card. This is our way to support him.”
She and her husband, Steve, held each another as the justices asked questions.
Across the room, 76-year-old Beverly Nouis held rosary beads as she watched, compelled to attend and advocate for Smith although she’s never met him.
“I hope they let him go,” she said.
Closed courtroom question
Many of the justices’ questions were about Morrison County District Judge Douglas Anderson’s decision to briefly close the courtroom before the trial’s opening statements to reiterate that he wouldn’t allow testimony from two teens about prior burglaries of Brady’s home. Because Smith didn’t know who had broken into his house, Anderson ruled, that testimony would have been prejudicial.
He said he closed the courtroom because there was a risk of it being published by the media and jurors learning of it if they didn’t follow their oaths to abstain from news coverage during the trial. (The Star Tribune also filed a legal brief last April with the state Supreme Court, asking for a ruling that the judge improperly closed the courtroom.)
“I am troubled by the closure,” Justice David Stras said.
But, Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea added, attorneys and judges discuss issues over bench conferences all the time — why not this case?
Meshbesher argued that the complete clearing of the courtroom violated the public trial guarantee and that the judge’s action prevented the witnesses he had intended to call to testify on previous burglaries, contributing to the fear Smith had, he said.
In questioning the prosecutor, Washington County First Assistant Attorney Brent Wartner, Justice G. Barry Anderson added that the judge “dropped this courtroom closure on top of everyone without any notice to anybody.”
Wartner said the judge was just reiterating how the attorneys should conduct themselves. “This is not a courtroom closure,” he told the justices. “This is about a bench conference.”
He added in an interview that it was “four minutes at the most and didn’t have any impact” on the trial.
Meshbesher also argued that there was a host of other errors, including the state trying to destroy the credibility of Smith’s neighbor, who was testifying, and improperly telling the grand jury he already had been charged with second-degree murder in the case.
But, Wartner told reporters afterward, “the facts weren’t really in dispute. No matter how you look at it … there’s no reasonable use of force in this case.”
Community still divided
In Little Falls, the teens’ deaths and trial deeply divided the central Minnesota community. Now, nearly three years later, tensions and memories of that deadly day are still raw for Smith’s friends and Kifer and Brady’s family, with Thursday’s arguments continuing the constant painful recounting of how it all unfolded.
Every day the Schaeffels drive by Smith’s house, or pass Brady’s favorite food, pickles, at the grocery store, they are reminded of their loss.
Every month, Smith’s neighbor, Kathy Lange, who housed him during the trial, visits him in the Stillwater state prison, bringing him hope.
“This is an injustice — give the man a fair trial. Since everybody thought he was a monster, killing kids … no one heard his side,” Lange said, adding about the appeal: “He’s hopeful, he’s always hopeful.”
The justices will now confer on the case. It generally takes three to five months before they file an opinion.