National "Stand Your Ground" debate hits home

Does the law give people a license to kill and legalize in-home murder?

National "Stand Your Ground" debate hits home

Last Thanksgiving, Byron Smith got more than turkey, cranberry, and mashed potatoes on his plate. The 64-year-old retired State Department employee shot and killed two wayward local teenagers when they allegedly tried to burglarize his home on Elm Street in Little Falls, a town of 8,000 residents approximately 100 miles northwest of Minneapolis.

Nicholas Brady, 17, and his cousin Haile Kifer, 18, had robbed an unoccupied home outside of Little Falls just days before, making off with prescription medication. Likely they were looking for more pills when they broke into Smith's house.

Smith, who told authorities that his home had been broken into eight times in recent years, was in his basement when he heard an upstairs window break. He saw Brady on the stairwell descending toward the basement and shot the unarmed teenager with a Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic rifle. Then he methodically finished off Brady with a gunshot to the face at point-blank range. An audio surveillance recording at the house captured Smith saying the words, "You're dead."

Byron Smith killed two teenagers who attempted to rob his Little Falls home on Thanksgiving Day
courtesy of the Morrison County Sheriff's Office
Byron Smith killed two teenagers who attempted to rob his Little Falls home on Thanksgiving Day
Elliot Fineman (top) of the National Gun Victims Action Council says that Stand Your Ground "enables paranoid crazies." Former assistant St. Paul city attorney Tom Weyandt opposed a Minnesota Stand Your Ground law introduced last year.
courtesy of Tom Weyandt
Elliot Fineman (top) of the National Gun Victims Action Council says that Stand Your Ground "enables paranoid crazies." Former assistant St. Paul city attorney Tom Weyandt opposed a Minnesota Stand Your Ground law introduced last year.

Within 18 seconds, Smith produced a tarp, rolled up Brady's body, and dragged it into his workshop. Ten minutes later, according to the audio recording, Kifer called out for Brady, then crept down the stairs. Smith shot her once before his gun jammed, about which he sardonically quipped, "Oh, sorry about that."

"Oh my God! Oh my God!" Kifer reportedly moaned in pain.

Smith fired several more shots with a .22-caliber revolver, telling Kifer, "You're dying, you're dying," as she crumpled to the basement floor. He dragged her body next to Brady's, then noticed the teenage girl still gasping for air. That's when he fired what he later called a "good clean finishing shot" up into her cranium.

Upon seeing Kifer's body offer a death twitch, Smith commented, "It works the same in a beaver or a deer."

Byron Smith didn't call the police to tell them about the two dead bodies in his basement, instead phoning his brother in California. The next day he told a neighbor what he had done and, likely at their encouragement, hired a lawyer. Only then were the authorities alerted.

"He didn't want to trouble us on the holiday," Morrison County Sheriff Michel Wetzel says Smith told investigators.

Smith has been charged with murder and was released on bail December 18. Pretrial hearings will resume on May 6 as the court awaits toxicology and DNA results. In the meantime, a firestorm of public opinion has engulfed Little Falls. On one side are those who view Smith as a cold-blooded killer of unarmed kids. On the other are those who believe Smith had a right to defend his home from burglary.

William Anderson, Smith's neighbor and friend, says that if law enforcement had done its job in October — the last time Smith's home was burglarized — there wouldn't be two dead kids today.

"If they hadn't been breaking into homes, they would be alive today," adds Anderson. "That's what we're going to write in granite at the local school."


Byron Smith's defense in court will undoubtedly rest on his legal right to protect himself against intruders inside his home. Adam Johnson, an associate at Meshbesher & Associates, which will represent Smith, couldn't comment on the specifics of the case, but told City Pages, "We're preparing our defense based on both a person's right to self-defense and to defend their home."

Smith's lawyers will appeal to the "castle doctrine" or "defense of habitation law," which derives from the 17th-century British jurist Sir Edward Coke, who articulated in his The Institutes of the Laws of England that "an Englishman's home is his castle," and he has the right to exclude anyone from his home. The dictum followed colonists to the New World, where over the next 377 years it merged with America's frontier individualism and gun culture to metastasize into today's "Stand Your Ground" laws, versions of which exist in 26 states.

The doctrine designates a person's home — and in some states, car or place of business — as a place where that person has certain protections and immunities and may, under certain circumstances, use deadly force to defend against an intruder without threat of prosecution. Prior to the passage of these shoot-first-ask-questions-later laws, the homeowner had a duty to try to retreat and call authorities for help.

Morrison County Sheriff Wetzel alluded to the "castle doctrine" in a statement after Smith was arrested, but insinuated that the Little Falls man had gone too far.

"A person has every right to defend themselves and their homes, even employing deadly force if necessary," Wetzel began, but added that investigators believe Smith's actions went beyond self-defense. "The law doesn't permit you to execute somebody after the threat is gone."

Pete Orput, the veteran Minneapolis homicide prosecutor who will help Morrison County authorities put Smith on trial, says that this case isn't about gun rights, it's about murder.

"This case is big," Orput says. "This is Minnesota's Trayvon Martin case."


The fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida, last February commanded national headlines and set off angry protests far beyond the Sunshine State.

The story had an explosive racial element, since Martin was an unarmed 17-year-old African-American and his killer was a 28-year-old white Hispanic. Even President Barack Obama commented on the issue, saying, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."

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34 comments
blacksheep
blacksheep

Hopefully his lawyer will get the statements he made to police inadmissible and he will get a jury who hasn't heard what he said under duress . It seems the poor old guy had PTSS after being a crime victim so many times. It's too bad the criminals won't get a chance to turn their lives around.

thiagodaluz7
thiagodaluz7

If any law facilitates this kind of behavior it is NOT beneficial to the United States. How can anyone in their right mind read this and find another side to debate!? I know more than one <a href="http://www.workcompmn.com/wrongful-death-claims/">Minneapolis wrongful death attorney</a> that'd agree, though that might be their jobs. Think about it though. Did an ass-kicking need to be administered? Yes. But this freak EXECUTED two children! I support citizens' rights to bear arms, but this was murder, not defense.

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

Remember -- Cowards Shoot First.


mpls1234
mpls1234

personally, i feel it is my duty to protect myself and my family. whether at home or in public. i am a firm believer that an armed society is a peaceful society. see Harvard study on gun control, make your own judgments http://www.law.harvard.edu/students/orgs/jlpp/Vol30_No2_KatesMauseronline.pdf 

now, before that is misconstrued to mean that i want everyone walking around with guns - i do believe there should be restrictions in place. obviously criminals should not be allowed to purchase/own weapons. there should be considerations for mental health issues, though this is a touchy subject. who decides? who decides when someone is "okay" to purchase or own? the background check system should be updated so that if someone has a permit to purchase or carry and they are added to the list due to prosecution/verdict the weapons may be transferred to a legal party or confiscated. just to name a few.

as for restrictions on weapons. aside from restrictions on full automatic weapons, which we already have in this country, i believe that legal law abiding citizens should have access to any weapon. if the cops need AR15's to address a threat, so do citizens. if the cops need high capacity magazines to address a threat, so do citizens. i do think that for carry permits there should be more training required in self defense tactics.

if i come across a situation where more than one threat presents itself and i'm forced into a self defense situation where i cannot retreat, or am in my home (and by being in my home am fully retreated) i do not want to be limited by the fire power, or capacity of my magazines to eliminate the threat. if my life came up to a magazine change because 7 rounds was not enough?

castle doctrine, fully support it. what Mr. Smith did, murder. the Martin/Zimmerman case in FL - if the media would have waiting for the facts to pass judgement.. i will wait to let the courts decide. but i'm leaning towards self defense. 

xtc1357
xtc1357

Hey shill nice try knowing what the criminals intent was when they broke into the house , next time stick to the facts it blows your credibility .

fmkinder
fmkinder

Mr. Wheeler.   I am a retired NYPD cop and a Vietnam combat vet.  I enjoyed your story, but you have skewed some facts.  A home owner who is in his home, is not obligated to RETREAT.  Outside the home he is.   I have CC permit.   Perhaps, you do not.   That is why you would retreat.  I on the other hand, would aim center mass and squeeze the trigger until the threat is removed.  I can only guess that you do not have a weapon in your home.  Thus, the reason for you to retreat.  I do  not condone what Mr. Smith did.  In essence it was murder.  However, all people that own guns are not CRAZIES.  Some are and the question should be....how did they acquire the weapons in the first place.  Law abiding citizens do not randomly execute people.   Only non compas mentas people do.  I am a staunch defender of the 2nd amendment....I wonder if you are?   Appreciate your time.....Respectfully FMKinder....

davisherb71
davisherb71

Breaking into peoples homes may very well get you killed, law or no law. I oppose the stand your ground laws and think that a person previously terrorized by a recent break-in is unlikely to be convicted of murder even if he does a kill shot to end the ordeal.

I live in the MN bible belt and most subscribe to "Thou shalt not kill" and I sure wouldn't be surprised if another burglar got shot by a homeowner who is terrorized by someone entering their home. If they broke into his barn or shed he'd be obviously wrong, breaking into his home while he is home is another matter.

Not an NRA supporter either!

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

More American Gun MADNESS!

Remember -- Cowards Shoot First.

digitalprotocol
digitalprotocol topcommenter

its pretty clear this guy enjoyed himself while KILLING kids

Twin Cities Gun Owners & Carry Forum
Twin Cities Gun Owners & Carry Forum

1. One cannot "rob" a home. 2. Why not focus on the criminal history of the two criminals who, if not for failures in our criminal justice system to properly charge, prosecute and sentence the two for previous crimes, would likely be alive today...

Chris Pederson
Chris Pederson

^^ tell that to the innocent people being murdered and/or wounded by people defending their 'natural right to self-preservation'.. and I'm pretty sure the gun industry has their hand in crafting these laws. how convenient.

swmnguy
swmnguy topcommenter

I've never heard of anyone in Minnesota being prosecuted for what appeared to be legitimate self-defense.  I've lived in Minneapolis for 25 years and never been in a situation where a gun would have helped. Every pro-"Stand Your Ground" and pro-gun argument I've ever heard relies on lurid hypotheticals and ultimately John Lott's fictitious "study," the results of which he can't produce.

The attempts of the far-right to exploit fear, much of it racially-based, for political gain and the financial gain of favored industries is shameful.  Crime is going down and has been for over a decade.  The two best ways to protect oneself are to not be involved in the retail street drugs trade, and to not be involved in an abusive relationship.  It's true that having a swimming pool is more dangerous than owning a gun, but at least a swimming pool has a non-violent purpose.

These laws don't solve any problem that needs to be solved.

CinBlueland
CinBlueland topcommenter

Wow. Surprised actually this wasn't written by Aaron R and poster MB.

You should wait for the police to arrive to write a report, you and your loved ones may be dead or injured but defending yourself with a firearm is bad.

Monica Bertrand
Monica Bertrand

The law does not give people license to kill. The law codifies the natural right to self-preservation. City Pages... don't you know you put yourself in the category of being just another headline rag when you editorialize as such?

JonReremy
JonReremy

Way to take an important issue and turn it into trashy journalism with this cover photo, CP. Keep up the good work.

digitalprotocol
digitalprotocol topcommenter

@Twin Cities Gun Owners & Carry Forum in what sense ? are you arguing semantics of all things?  can i burglarize a home? does that work?

The criminal justice system is broken and in large part to orginizations like yours, why do we care about court and judges and shit  - we're talking about to teens doing what teens do- causing trouble - they would be alive today if this old fuck had any brains and if he wasnt really into pink mist!

xtc1357
xtc1357

@Chris Pederson  have you ever had to defend a love one ????? I have and I would do what ever it takes and on another occasion I could not and they were murdered 2 blocks from police station with a knife. The gun  issue is a red herring , and since when do innocent people break into a house with a owner present ? Blaming the gun industry is typical for liberal shills who are white and privileged. Ask a minority how in their neighborhoods they live and feel about crime and criminals maybe you would get a dose of reality and perspective !!

_Joe_
_Joe_

@swmnguy Congratulations on your 25 year run.  I hope it continues for you and that I am as lucky.  However, I'm glad to know that I have access to a firearm to defend myself and my family should we find ourselves among the unlucky someday.  

xtc1357
xtc1357

@CinBlueland you hit it on the nail criminals don't give a dam if you have time to call the police .

digitalprotocol
digitalprotocol topcommenter

@_Joe_  i don't really care to explain myself, some things are just obvious man.

one explanation would be that he got a HUGE rush from his final killshots, therefore he enjoyed himself.


-enjoy

_Joe_
_Joe_

@digitalprotocol So if a teen attackes your daughter, are you going to claim that "teens will be teens?"    Screw that.  Hold them accountable.  If you break into someone's house when you know you shouldn't be there, you should have a reasonable expectation of getting shot. 

If this guy had dropped them both with the first shot, he would be a free man today.

swmnguy
swmnguy topcommenter

@_Joe_  Mind you, I'm not opposed to gun ownership.  It simply doesn't make sense for me.  I am opposed to the current vogue for "Castle Doctrine" and "Stand Your Ground" laws.

_Joe_
_Joe_

@digitalprotocol Fair enough.  What's seems pretty clear to me is that the guy went way beyond what anyone could consider reasonable defense of his home and person.  I was just wondering if there were more facts available elsewhere that I was not aware of.

digitalprotocol
digitalprotocol topcommenter

@_Joe_  if someone broke into my home, and i had a gun, i would ID the intruder well before popping em - So as not to shoot my "granddaughter"

_Joe_
_Joe_

@xtc1357 Correct.  However, MN law is extremely vague and subject to a lot of interpretation.  It would be nice if it were better defined.

_Joe_
_Joe_

@swmnguy BTW, Thank you for engaging in civil discussion.  There's been a distinct lack of that around here lately

_Joe_
_Joe_

@swmnguy Understood.  I supported the previously proposed legislation because it provided much more clarity than our current laws and legal precedent.  Though it probably had room for improvement, I was sorry to see it get vetoed.  I would just like to see something defined.  Granted, I'm not going to be worrying about what my rights are if I feel genuinely threatened in my home.  I'm going to act until I feel I am no longer threatened and let the courts figure it out later if they have to. 

That said, I think we've got way more important issues to deal with on a federal level at this time and I support most of the White House's recent suggestions.  Especially in terms of making sure that people get mental health treatment when they need it, and expanding the information available for ATF background checks.  I also support waiting periods for purchase and that private sales be facilitated by an FFL dealer that can do a background check and hold the firearm for the duration of the waiting period.

The only thing I really don't think will help is banning a specific type of firearm or magazine capacity.  At best it seems that that provision would have the least impact if it has any at all.

 
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