By Sarah Nelson Katzenberger, Forum News Service
LITTLE FALLS, Minn. -- A man who claimed he feared for his life when he fatally shot two teenagers in his central Minnesota home was found guilty Tuesday of premeditated murder.
Byron Smith, 65, was charged with two counts of second-degree murder and indicted on two counts of first-degree murder after the killings of Nick Brady, 17, and Haile Kifer, 18, on Thanksgiving Day 2012, when the cousins entered his rural Little Falls home without permission.
A jury convicted him on all four counts Tuesday in Morrison County District Court.
Smith said he feared for his life but admitted to authorities that he shot the teens “more times than he should have.”
State prosecutor Pete Orput asked the court to give Smith the maximum sentence allowed by the state of Minnesota. For first-degree murder, the mandatory penalty is life imprisonment.
Orput said Smith should serve consecutive life sentences.
“Each body counts, each murder counts,” Orput told Judge Douglas Anderson. “In the end, it me be superfluous, but it’s not for the families.”
Anderson denied Orput’s request for consecutive sentences, saying it would not change the length of the ultimate sentence.
After the verdict, family members of Brady and Kifer read victim impact statements before the court.
On behalf of Kifer’s parents, Kifer’s aunt, Laurie Skipper, said Smith’s actions were a conscious decision that took Kifer away from her family forever.
She said that the day of the shooting was the worst day of their lives, and listening to the audio recording from inside Smith’s home was unbearable.
“You always want to protect your children, and we weren’t able to do that,” Skipper read, adding that the audio will forever haunt the family.
Nick Brady’s mother, Kimberly Brady, described her son as kind, big-hearted and eager to learn.
“Not seeing him anymore is a great tragedy, a tremendous sadness that never seems to go away,” she said.
Brady’s grandmother, Bonnie Schaeffel, said that when Brady and Kifer entered Smith’s home, they made a stupid mistake, but it should not have cost them their lives.
“Haile and Nick should have had consequences so they could learn from their mistakes,” she said. “Mr. Smith took that away from him.”
Smith was remanded into custody immediately after court was adjourned.
The jury of six men and six women deliberated for just over three hours before reaching the verdict.
Jurors were allowed to comment to the media at a news conference afterward, but all declined.
Working on appeal
Smith has the right to appeal his conviction. His attorney, Steven Meshbesher, said there was evidence the jury didn’t see and that the defense is already working on an appeal.
Meshbesher referenced items stolen from Smith’s home, guns allegedly found in Nick Brady’s home, allegations that items at Brady’s home were destroyed before police arrived as well as allegations of drug use.
“There’s a lot of things missing,” Meshbesher said. “To disregard (those things) is wrong ... to get a fair trial without viewing all the evidence is extremely difficult and near impossible to do.”
Meshbesher said he felt the verdict was a wrongful conviction, and he intends to take the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court. First-degree murder convictions are automatically reviewed by the Supreme Court.
Opening the post-conviction news conference, Morrison County Sheriff Michel Wetzel referenced the news conference held in the same room on Nov. 26, 2012, days after the shootings.
Wetzel recalled telling the media that this case was not about a person’s right to protect himself in his own home.
“That’s a given,” he said.
Wetzel said the case involves deciding where the limits are before and after a threat occurs.
“In this case a jury has decided there are limits, and they’ve decided where they are,” he said. “My office respects the process and we respect the jury’s verdict.”
Premeditation vs. fear
During closing arguments Tuesday, the jurors again her audio recordings made by Smith the day he shot Brady and Kifer.
Some closed their eyes. Others fidgeted and looked away. One juror wiped away tears.
Orput told the jury this is “a serious but very simple case.”
“Take the evidence to apply it to the law,” he said. “Take all the time you need and come back with a just verdict.”
Orput said the shooting deaths were intentional and done with premeditation.
But Meshbesher maintained that Smith acted out of fear.
Meshbesher talked about Brady breaking then climbing into Smith’s bedroom window, and after hearing three shots, Kifer following Brady’s path into the house.
Meshbesher suggested that it was possible, upon hearing shots fired, for Kifer to have thought it was Brady firing at Smith, not the other way around.
“She heard shots fired and she came anyway,” Meshbesher said.
Meshbesher blamed drug use and greed for the teens’ actions.
He said if Brady and Kifer had made different choices that day, they might still be alive.
“They didn’t deserve to die -- nobody does,” he said. “Death is an ugly thing. It’s a traumatic experience for all of us.
“But they were not murdered.”
Brady’s grandfather, Steve Schaeffel, represented the family in addressing the media after the verdict.
Schaeffel said Smith took something from his family that can never be replaced.
“These kids made a dumb mistake,” he said. “I have made huge stupid mistakes in my life, but I’m alive to talk about it. Justice was served today in the verdict.”