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The shooting of two teenagers who broke into a man’s home in Morrison County on Thanksgiving Day brought Minnesota’s self defense laws to the forefront.

In Morrison County shooting case, Minnesota state law on trial

A “keep out” sign is displayed Nov. 26 at the Little Falls property of Byron David Smith. Smith is charged with two counts of second-degree murder for the shooting death of two teenagers in the midst of an apparent Thanksgiving Day break-in. (AP Photo / The Star Tribune: Elizabeth Flores)

Defining line between self defense, murder

The shooting of two teenagers who broke into a man’s home in Morrison County on Thanksgiving Day brought Minnesota’s self defense laws to the forefront.

Proving a murder case against Byron David Smith will come down to a jury’s interpretation of a one-sentence law and whose version of events for that day the jurors believe.

If Smith’s defense attorneys argue he acted in self defense when he shot and killed Haile Kifer, 18, and Nicholas Brady, 17, then it is up to the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the killing was not justified.

In Minnesota, shooting and killing an intruder in your home is legal if you feel threatened with great bodily harm or if you are trying to prevent a felony. No one will argue that Smith was not threatened with great bodily harm or that Brady and Kifer were committing a felony by breaking in to the man’s home.

But prosecutors will likely argue Smith went too far. Authorities say Smith told them he was in his basement when the two teenagers came down the stairs. He shot each in the leg and then shot them again in order to “finish them off.” Neither was armed.

Case decisions interpret the statute broadly. There is no duty to retreat from your home, and decisions have said people have the right to chase after an assailant after the confrontation to make sure a felony was not committed, but you still have to act reasonably, said Bradford Colbert, a professor of criminal law at the William Mitchell College of Law and a state public defender.

“You can defend your dwelling, but the Supreme Court has said this isn’t a license to kill, either,” Colbert said.

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.

The jury will have to decide if the final shooting was “reasonable,” said Minneapolis defense attorney Coley Grostyan. It is a subjective term, but it will tie the defense attorneys’ hands in the Smith case, he said.

“The state needs to show the shooting wasn’t defensible, that he had other options at that point. Certainly the comments he made to law enforcement about how the kids ‘needed to die’ will make self defense a much tougher argument to make. The prosecution can paint this as ‘vigilante justice,’” he said.

The self-defense argument does allow defense attorneys to introduce factors to a jury or a judge that would otherwise be excluded. Minneapolis defense attorney Brock Hunter said the behavior of the two teenagers will likely be discussed as will Smith’s circumstances before the shooting.

The two victims were involved in a string of burglaries of prescription drugs and other items in the days and weeks leading up to the robbery. Police questioned them the day before the shooting but did not arrest them.

Smith told police his home had been burglarized eight times. Recently, someone stole $1,000 worth of items, including firearms.

“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.

He said it is likely the defense will request toxicology reports of the two victims and Smith’s professional background, lack of a criminal record and the fact that he was burglarized and the teenagers were part of a string of burglaries will all be introduced as evidence. Smith was also a retired security engineer for the U.S. State Department. To get that job he would have been heavily vetted and screened for mental health issues, Hunter said.

Still, he said the totality of the circumstances will be hard for the defense to overcome. The teenagers were unarmed when Smith fired, and he kept their bodies for approximately 24 hours in his home after he shot them.

Friedberg said he has thought for years that the self-defense statute needs to be clarified. As it is written, deadly force is OK to prevent the commission of a felony in your home.

“If someone was on the phone in your house arranging a drug deal or a burglary, you could blow his head off. Clearly that’s not the intent, but no statute should be written so you need judicial interpretation to get it right,” he said.

Last year, Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed a bill that would have expanded a person’s right to use deadly force in Minnesota. If passed, the bill would have allowed people to shoot to kill someone if they felt threatened in their home, on their porch or deck, or in their yard, tent or vehicle. It would have also changed the presumption of when a shooting is justified.

Heather Martens, the executive director of Protect Minnesota, an agency working to end gun violence in the state, said the proposed law would have had an impact on this case.

“It would have made it much harder for prosecutors to bring a murder charge against [Smith],” she said. “If a shooter claimed he acted in self defense, then the prosecution would have had to prove otherwise. In fact, a person couldn’t be arrested until law enforcement had gathered evidence to refute the self-defense claim. This case shows right where the line in our law is.”

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