Byron Smith

I have often blogged about cases in which there is no question who was the person who killed another... this is such a case.  One thing that seems to be a resounding claim in these sorts of cases is self defense.  One person kills another but claims they were in fear of their own life and had no choice but to do so.  Then there are the cases like the Montana case of Markus Kaarma that uses laws such as "Stand Your Ground", also known as the Castle doctrines, to attempt to prove they had a legal right to defend themselves and their property. I mention the Kaarma case specifically because the Byron Smith case is very similar in many aspects.  They are cases in which the question is not who pulled the trigger, but whether the use of deadly forced was warranted or taken too far.  Strangely enough in both these cases the defendants were ultimately convicted, not just because of their use of deadly force but because prosecutors were able to prove in both cases that the defendant had set a trap and had every intention of using deadly force against whomever entered their property.

On Thanksgiving Day 2012 (November 22) 17 year old Nicholas Brady and his 18 year old cousin Halie Kifer entered onto the property owned by Byron Smith. Byron Smith's land consisted of over 10 acres, many of it wooded, with many out buildings.  Surveillance cameras erected by Smith himself showed all of this. Smith had retired a few years prior from the State Department where he worked in Homeland Security all over the world and his specialty was in surveillance. Inside the home Smith sat in his basement with an audio tape recording things in his home.  Smith's neighbor, Bill Anderson, would later claim that Smith kept all of these recordings going 24/7 in his home because he had had a rash of burglaries at his home in recent months.  Over the next several days investigators would find all of these audio and video recordings.  They would play a crucial role in not just Smith's trial but in public opinion towards him.  

In a matter of twelve minutes Smith shot Brady twice with a shotgun as he stood at the top of the basement stairs and once in the face after he had fallen to the bottom of the stairs. After the last shot Smith was heard on the audio tape saying "You're dead." Smith then quickly laid a tarp out and placed Brady's body on top of it. Approximately ten minutes later the audio tape indicates that Kifer was near the top of the stairs quietly calling out to Brady.  It was then that Smith also shot her to which she too fell to the bottom of the stairs.  He went to shoot her again but his gun jammed so he went and grabbed a nearby .22 caliber handgun and shot her at least four more times.  Apparently while he was moving Kifer over to the tarp to lay next to her cousin he realized she was still alive and shot her once more under the chin, this was a fatal shot.

The audio taped recordings did not just capture the shooting, they also gave us a glimpse of Smith before and after the shooting.  Before the shooting he is heard saying things like "in your left eye" (one of the victims, most say Kifer but reports vary, was shot in the left eye.  He is also heard talking to himself as if he was rehearsing walking into a lawyer's office saying things like, "I realize I do not have an appointment."  After the shooting he is heard taunting the victims such as calling Kifer a "bitch."  He is also again heard rambling to himself, apparently as he was cleaning things up saying he had done his "civic duty," "like I give a damn who she is," and calling the victims "vermin" and "not human."  

It would be nearly a full 24 hours before authorities were called, and even then it was not by Smith himself.  In the meantime Brady and Kifer's family had become worried as they had not returned for Thanksgiving dinner, nor had they obviously come home that night and they were out searching for them.  Then around 12:30 pm on Friday November 24th, Smith called his neighbor Bill Anderson.  He told him that he had discovered who had been breaking into his home and "took care of it." He asked Anderson to help him find a lawyer and then asked him to call the police for him.  Anderson would seemingly become Smith's biggest supporter.  Today it appears that Anderson does not necessarily defend Smith as much as he makes excuses for his behavior, but I will get into that more later.  

When the police arrived at Smith's home it is unlikely they were prepared to find what they did.  Even still, the initial idea was that Smith was defending his home and he had every right to do so as it was apparent that Brady and Kifer had broken in.  This train of thought apparently stayed in the minds of the public for a very long time but the police were soon suspicious.  Those suspicions divided the small town of Little Falls Minnesota as much, if not more, than the Mississippi River already did.  

I love to see or hear cases in which we hear or see actual evidence, whether it be court room proceedings or interrogation tapes. I realize that when presenting this evidence, whether it be in court or complied for a television show it can, and often is, edited but words matter.  Just as I know the film Making a Murderer is all the rage now and no one can clearly argue that it is not biased toward Steven Avery, I commend the filmmakers as so much of it is actual recordings, be it from interrogations or actual court room testimony.  This case not only gave us police interrogations, but Smith himself provided the best evidence, both for and against him.

One of the first questions that police had for Smith in his initial interrogation was why he waited 24 hours before reporting anything.  Smith's answer did not quell their suspicions as he told them he "did not want to bother" them on Thanksgiving.  Prosecutors would later theorize, although could not prove, that Smith waited for two reasons.  One was that he was waiting to see if more people came into the home and he planned to do just as he had done to Brady and Kifer.  There was apparently evidence that Smith had unscrewed light bulbs in the basement so no one could see the lights if they tried to enter, continuing to believe he was not home. The other was so that he could clean up his mess.  Apparently, according to what I have found the audio tape composed of six hours of time, both before and after the shooting.  I find this odd because his neighbor, Bill Anderson, would later claim, at least to the press that the audio was going all the time.  Does this mean it was misrepresented by the media and/or prosecutors or had Smith shut the tape off, and if he did, what was he doing during that time?  

Aside from his lack of notifying authorities quickly, another thing that was troubling to them was Smith's demeanor.  It was not that he just seemed to be uncaring or shall we say "bland" in his interrogation but it was how and what he said.  In fact, after describing the shootings, apparently in great detail, he mentioned the fact that when he went to move Kifer he realize she was still alive and that he had fired "a good clean finishing shot."  

Smith was claiming self defense right from the get go.  It was obvious that the teens had broken into a home that was not theirs and laws did protect a homeowner in defending their life and property.  Investigators asked Smith why he had shot the victims so many times and how after the shots were fired in which caused them to fall down the steps and be helpless he felt his life still in danger to the point he felt the need to continue shooting them.  At this point they still do not have all the evidence they would later have.  For instance, they did not have reports from the medical examiner telling them how many times the victims were shot, nor did they have the audio tapes from inside the home. They know however that the teens did not apparently have weapons on them as they entered the home so they continued to ask these questions of Smith.  He really did not have an adequate answer other than to say he did not know if they were armed or not and still feared for his life.

What the investigators did know apparently fairly early was that the month before Smith had reported that he had been burglarized.  They also knew that another home in the area had been robbed the night prior to Thanksgiving and there were items from that robbery in Brady's car.  They also had the video tape from the surveillance cameras on Smith's property.  Aside from their skepticism in Smith's story they were still initially seeing this as a man being surprised by people breaking into his home and defending his property. Smith was seen as the bigger victim in this case.

After Smith's trial his neighbor and friend, Bill Anderson, as well as his lawyers would say that Smith had been burglarized multiple times throughout the summer and fall of 2012 leading up the shooting.  I found an account that says starting in June of 2012 there had supposedly been four break ins, and five burglaries.  Apparently the last one prior to this fateful Thanksgiving Day had occurred on October 27, 2012. This seems to have been the only time however that Smith contacted the police and even still it appears that he did not do so until the following day.  According to Anderson, Smith had spoken often about these burglaries but even he could not say why Smith had not reported them all even though supposedly over $40,000 in cash and items had been taken.  All of the incidents had happened during the day and in one of them (it very well could have been the October incident) at least one (if not more) guns had been stolen.  It was on October 28, 2012 in which Anderson claims that Smith came to his home and told him of the latest burglary in which a gold watch that Smith's father had received after being a POW in World War II had been taken. Anderson claimed that Smith had stated he had not slept in about four months, when the burglaries allegedly began.  Anderson stated that about 20 days later the police talked to Smith and told him there were little to no leads on the case and seemed little they could do.  Anderson would claim that the police did not take fingerprints at the scene and in essence blames them for not following up on things because he states that this is what made Smith believe he needed to take action on his own.  Prosecutors would later allege that had Smith reported all of these alleged (although admittedly they do not seem to dispute they happened) burglaries it would have likely made a huge difference. I question maybe not that his home had been burglarized and damaged in the past but that it supposedly happened that many times and he had not reported it.  I should add here that several months after Smith's conviction a teen by the name of Cody Kasper was ordered to pay $3,976 in restitution to Smith after admitting he had been involved in some of the burglaries.  He would also claim that Brady had been involved (some reports also state Kifer herself was also involved) in the and that it was Brady who had stolen several thousand dollars from the Smith home.  Not that I am going to necessarily defend Brady here because obviously he broke into this man's home on November 22, 2012 and apparently had robbed another home the night before, but I could not find clear proof that what Kasper said could be proven.  At any rate, Smith's defense, whether it be his friends or his lawyers, would claim that these prior burglaries had put Smith in fear of his life as well as convinced him the police would be of no help.  They also would all later claim that the judge's decision to not allow evidence at his trial that at least Brady had been involved in any previous burglary was wrong. I disagree.  The judge at the trial did allow evidence that there had been previous burglaries but the judge stated that there was only speculation by Brady as to who was involved.  In fact, prosecutors would claim that Smith suspected a female neighbor.  The judge's point was that Smith did not know who was breaking into his home or even that those who did break in had been involved previously.  In the judge's opinion the only thing that mattered was that Smith was going to take care of the situation, no matter who it was, in whatever way he felt he should.  Again, this case purely came down to where do you draw the line of deadly force.  Anderson seemed to talk much about the mental state of Smith over the months leading up to the shooting.  He would claim that when he went to Smith's house he had a "code" (a ring of the bell and a knock) before he could enter and that Smith had taken to walking around his home constantly carrying his gun.  Anderson seemed to put more blame on the police for not following through with the burglary report.  It seems however though when it came down to how the events unfolded on that particular day he could make few excuses for his friend.

Another thing Anderson and Smith's attorney contend did not make it into the trial (and again I agree it made no difference there, but it may here) is that Brady (and again possibly Kifer) had worked with Smith doing odd jobs on his property in the summer of 2011.  Anderson would claim and a group of young kids worked on the property and that they had the "lay of the house" but that Smith had told him that when those same kids came back in the summer of 2012 he had decided not to give them any work.  Anderson would state that Smith had told him that the kids not only had not done a good job and broke some equipment that he had noticed things missing.  It was soon after Smith supposedly told Anderson this that the burglaries allegedly began.  

Prosecutors would claim at trial that Smith had lured the teens to the home and then laid in wait for them.  They would liken the area in the basement in which he sat waiting like a deer stand for a hunter as well as his claim of a "good finishing shot."  Smith was seen on his own surveillance camera moving his truck from his driveway (reports say he parked it at a neighbors home). Smith would claim that he did so in order to clean out his garage, but prosecutors would claim he did this in order to make it appear that he was not home.  He was never seen on the video cleaning out the garage as he claimed he planned to do. Prosecutors would also claim that the neighbor girl Smith suspected was behind the burglaries had driven by that day and it was their claim that he moved his truck then intending for her (or apparently whomever) to come and break into his home.  They would also claim that by Smith's own admissions on his audio recording that he had planned to shoot whoever entered his home.

Initially Smith was charged with second degree murder but the case was taken to a grand jury and in April of 2013 he was indicted and recharged with two counts of first degree, premeditated murder.  His trial would commence the following year in April of 2014.  It took the jury three hours to return with a guilty verdict on two counts of first degree murder with premeditation and two counts of second degree murder.  Jurors would later say that while going through the trial and hearing all of the evidence was difficult, coming to a conclusion was not.  In their initial vote there was only one hold out it seems and that juror just simply wanted to look at the evidence more.  Smith had previous been out on bail awaiting trial but he was taken into custody when the verdict was read April 29, 2014 and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Apparently life means life in Minnesota as there is no projected release date.

Up until all of the evidence came to light through the trial, especially the audio tapes Smith had an abundance amount of support.  It began to dwindle as time went on and by the time the trial was over there seemed to be just a small band of grand supporters.  It was believed, especially in the beginning, that they would receive huge support from gun advocates especially but even most of the respected people in that area admitted that Smith took things too far.  Some claim despite evidence that he lured the victims to his home, or even that he laid in wait, that the first shot to each victim, to which disabled them (and they fell down the stairs) could have possibly fallen under the Castle Doctrine, the subsequent shots, as well as his comments on his own tape as well as to the investigators, went well beyond what the law allowed or should ever allow.  I believe that the fact that everyone in the courtroom stood as the jury entered on the day of the verdict except for Smith says a lot about his character, but then again, maybe that is just me. There is still a Facebook page that is active devoted to defending Smith.  There are less than 200 likes on the page and as I read through some of the comments I found that not all of those who post defended Smith's action, and many that did were rather vile towards the victims as well as their families.  Apparently a site was created, much like GoFundMe, to help fund Smith's appeal but while they were looking to raise $50,000 they received $50 from one person in a period of at least two months.  

In February of 2015 defense attorney filed an appeal.  Among their arguments, were charges that when the case was presented to the grand jury (who's decision was to charge him as first degree murder) the prosecutor had changed the wording when Bill Anderson testified.  Instead of simply saying that Smith asked him to help him find an attorney, they charge the prosecutor used the words "defense attorney" or "criminal attorney" which the defense claims indicated to the grand jury that Smith knew he had done something wrong. The defense would also claim that in initial reports it seemed as if Kifer had said "I'm sorry" on the tape just prior to the last shot Smith administered and they apparently successfully argued to the judge to have that changed as being 'inaudible' but that in closing arguments the prosecutor used the "I'm sorry" and when they asked for a mistrial the judge claimed he would caution the jury but never had. They again of course argued in the appeal that they were not allowed to show evidence that at least Brady had been involved in previous burglaries.  The last I could find on this was that the courts had agreed to hear the case in September of 2015 but I have no information as to if he has been or been ruled on at this point.

No one can argue that these kids were perfect, that is obvious.  There were attempts not only to show they were involved in other crimes but that Brady in particular had been aggressive and classified as a bully.  There was also evidence that they may have been involved in some drug use.  Reality is, if they would have continued the behavior they were showing they would have likely been caught and spent time in jail or maybe even killed by someone they did legitimately surprise as they walked into a house, but that was not the case here.  There was too much evidence to support the prosecution in proving that this man decided not just to take the law into his own hands, but serve the ultimate justice.

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