Byron Smith murder case: Was he under threat of great harm when he shot teenagers?

Smith did himself no favors with the "good, clean finishing shot" statement he gave police.
Smith did himself no favors with the "good, clean finishing shot" statement he gave police.

Byron Smith faces two charges of second-degree murder in connection with the killings of teenagers Haile Kifer and Nicholas Brady, both of whom were shot to death on Thanksgiving after they apparently broke into Smith's home.

SEE ALSO: MNGOP Rep. Tony Cornish, author of "deadly force" bill, thinks Byron Smith is a murderer

Smith seemed to convict himself in a statement he gave to police after the teens' dead bodies were discovered in his home the next day. He said that after shooting Brady, he looked at him on the floor and thought to himself, "I want him dead," then fatally shot him in the face. Later, after Kifer was shot repeatedly in the chest and lay gasping for air, Smith told police he killed her with a "good, clean finishing shot" under the chin. Seems like a cut-and-dried case of murder, right? Not so fast.

A piece in Minnesota Lawyer looks at what a defense attorney will have to demonstrate in order to exonerate Smith. In short, in Minnesota, killing an intruder is lawful if it happens in the course of trying to prevent that intruder from committing a felony in your home or if you reasonably feel you're at risk for great bodily harm. And since Kifer and Brady had broken into Smith's house, there's a case to be made that the first shots Smith fired prevented a burglary from occurring and therefore were legally permissible. But what about the subsequent kill shots?

From Minnesota Lawyer's report:

The first shots were OK, but his right to defend himself did not allow him to continue shooting, said Minneapolis defense attorney Joe Friedberg. He said prosecutors will likely argue that after Smith fired the first shots he was then responsible to pick up the phone and dial 911. He didn't need to continue shooting.

"The prosecution will say that after these kids are lying on the ground bleeding, he had no reason to fear for his life anymore and they certainly weren't going to be committing a felony," Friedberg said. "It's the 'finishing off' comment he made to police. That's where he runs into problems [with the self-defense argument.]"

If he would have called police after shooting the two teenagers the first time, Smith would likely be a free man instead of sitting in jail facing charges of second-degree murder, Friedberg said.

In sum, Smith did himself no favors with the chilling statement he gave to police in the wake of the shootings. But Minneapolis defense attorney Brock Hunter told Minnesota Lawyer that Smith might be able to build a defense around the bizarre, possibly drug-influenced behavior of the teens.

According to Smith's version of events, when his gun jammed, Kifer laughed at him. She'd already been shot at least once. That's certainly a strange way to behave as your life is slipping away. Furthermore, the teens have been linked to another Little Falls burglary that occurred just days before Thanksgiving. They were apparently after prescription drugs, and Brady's sister speculated that pills were probably what Brady and Kifer were after in breaking into Smith's home.

Furthermore, Smith claims his home has been burglarized eight times in recent years.

More from the Minnesota Lawyer piece:

"He was in the basement when they broke in; that is about as justifiable of a position in your home as you can ask for," said Hunter.

Smith told police that when he shot the girl she started to laugh at him. Hunter said it is "beyond strange why anyone would be laughing in that situation."

"The defense could say that someone in that position could have been on edge and in fear. The behavior of the teenagers was so brazen and so unusual it would arguably scare anyone. Those things will all work in favor of the defense," he said.

Was Smith sufficiently "on edge" and "in fear" to reasonably believe the teens put him at risk for great bodily harm even after they'd been shot and incapacitated? It seems like a stretch, but it'll be up for a jury to decide.

As the Minnesota Lawyer notes, Smith's case would've been even more controversial had Gov. Dayton not vetoed the MNGOP-pushed Defense of Dwelling and Person act last spring. Rather than requiring Smith to demonstrate it was reasonable to believe he was at risk for great harm, that law would've placed the burden on prosecutors to prove Smith wasn't acting in self-defense when he used deadly force.

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