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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."
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."