LITTLE FALLS, Minn. (AP) — A Minnesota homeowner who shot and killed two teenagers during a break-in was quickly convicted of premeditated murder Tuesday, with a jury taking only about three hours to soundly reject his claim of self-defense.
Byron Smith, a 65-year-old retiree who once set up security in American embassies for the U.S. State Department, shot Nick Brady, 17, and Haile Kifer, 18, a total of nine times after they broke into his home on Thanksgiving Day 2012. Smith’s attorney said he was fearful after previous burglaries.
But prosecutors argued that Smith waited in his basement and intended to kill the teens, with a setup so elaborate that lead prosecutor Pete Orput compared it to a deer stand — with the teens as the deer. Their key evidence was an audiotape recording that captured the killings in chilling detail, including his taunts as they died.
The mothers of the teens cried as the verdicts from the six-man, six-woman jury were read: Guilty on two counts each of first-degree and second-degree murder. Smith showed no emotion. He was immediately sentenced to life without parole. Defense attorney Steve Meshbesher said he would appeal.
Brady’s grandmother, Bonnie Schaeffel, was among family members who addressed the court after the verdicts were given.
“He seems a sour, angry old recluse who felt he was above the law,” Schaeffel said. “He chose to be cop, judge, jury and executioner.”
Kifer’s aunt, Laurie Skipper, read a statement from her niece’s parents: “Byron Smith made a conscious choice to shoot and kill our beautiful daughter Haile. … The feelings of helplessness are overwhelming.”
Smith’s brother, Bruce, walked past reporters afterward without comment.
The teens’ killings stirred debate around the state and in Little Falls — a Mississippi River city of 8,000 about 100 miles northwest of Minneapolis — about how far a homeowner can go in responding to a threat. Minnesota law allows deadly force to prevent a felony from taking place in one’s home or dwelling, but one’s actions must be considered reasonable under the circumstances.
Prosecutors said Smith’s plan was set in motion on the morning of the killings, after Smith saw a neighbor whom he believed responsible for prior burglaries drive by. Prosecutors say Smith moved his truck to make it look like no one was home, and then settled into a chair in his basement with a book, energy bars, a bottle of water and two guns.
Smith also set up a hand-held recorder on a bookshelf, which captured audio of the shootings, and had installed a surveillance system that recorded images of Brady trying to enter the house.
The audio, which was played several times in court, captured the sound of glass shattering, Brady descending the basement stairs and Smith shooting Brady three times. Smith can be heard saying, “You’re dead.” Prosecutors said Smith put Brady’s body on a tarp and dragged him into another room, then sat down, reloaded his weapon and waited.
About 10 minutes later, Kifer came downstairs. More shots are heard on the recording, then Kifer’s screams, with Smith saying, “You’re dying.” It’s followed soon after by another gunshot, which investigators said Smith described as “a good, clean finishing shot.”
The teens were unarmed, but Smith’s attorneys had said he feared they had a weapon.
The tape continued to run, and Smith was heard referring to the teens as “vermin.” Smith waited a full day before asking a neighbor to call police.
Smith did not testify on his own behalf. Meshbesher highlighted previous burglaries on Smith’s property, including one on Oct. 27 that included the theft of weapons. A neighbor testified that Smith came to his door after that burglary and appeared very frightened. Meshbesher also said Smith wrote a memo to the Morrison County Sheriff’s Office on Oct. 29 asking them to investigate.
During closing arguments, Meshbesher said teens would still be alive if they hadn’t broken into Smith’s house.
Kifer was a senior who was active in athletics at Little Falls High School. Brady was a student and a wrestler at that school before transferring to nearby Pillager High School, where he was a junior. They were cousins.
Judge Douglas Anderson excluded evidence about the teens’ histories from the trial as irrelevant, including court documents that showed Brady had broken into Smith’s house and garage before. Brady and Kifer were also linked to another burglary the day before they were killed; stolen prescription drugs were found in the car they were driving.