Byron Smith Trial: Lawyers' final arguments
LITTLE FALLS — For the final time Tuesday jurors heard the now familiar sounds of recordings made by Byron Smith the day he shot Nick Brady and Haile Kifer in his rural Little Falls basement.
The sound of breaking glass. Footsteps in the house. Three shots fired.
Eleven minutes pass.
Six more shots.
They heard the recordings Tuesday morning as two lawyers presented final arguments before a jury found Smith guilty on all murder counts.
Jurors had remained stoic throughout the trial while listening to audio recordings from Smith’s basement and viewing photos and hearing testimony about the damage caused by each injury suffered by Brady and Kifer.
As jurors listened to audio Tuesday, some closed their eyes. Others fidgeted and looked away.
One juror wiped away tears.
Smith was indicted on two counts of first-degree premeditated murder. He also was facing two counts of second-degree murder.
In his closing statements, state prosecutor Pete Orput told the jury the case 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 of Brady and Kifer were intentional and done with premeditation — that Smith planned, prepared, determined and considered what he was doing before he did.
Orput described Minnesota law regarding self-defense and defense of dwelling.
In Minnesota, it is not a crime for a person to take the life of another if the surrounding circumstances expose the person to death or great bodily harm, there is reasonable threat and the decision to defend is something a reasonable person would have made in light of the present danger.
According to Minnesota law, it is not a crime to take the life of another while preventing the commission of a felony, when the gravity of the situation is reasonable and the action taken is what any reasonable person would have done.
Orput explained that all three conditions had to be met for Smith to be protected by the defense of dwelling law. If the state disproves any one of the conditions the law does not apply.
“This defense is inapplicable here,” Orput said.
Orput described for jurors the timeline of events occurring Thanksgiving Day 2012.
At 10:30 a.m. Smith was speaking to his neighbor, William Anderson, when the pair saw another neighbor, suspected of previously breaking into Smith’s home, drive by. “That’s what set the plan in place,” Orput told the jurors.
Smith testified that an hour later he moved his vehicle away from his home so he could clean out his garage without the concern of it being burglarized.
Orput showed jurors an aerial map of Smith’s neighborhood and how far he moved his vehicle away from his home, then rhetorically asked, “Or was it part of the plan?”
Orput cued sound bites of statements made by Smith before and after the shooting both while he was alone in his basement and in statements made to law enforcement.
In his statements to Morrison County sheriff’s deputy Jeremy Luberts, Smith describes the events telling Luberts that he was afraid and later that he was “ganged up on” in elementary school.
“Everybody has a red button — everybody has a sore spot,” he told Luberts. “That’s a sore spot for me.”
Smith described remembering those feelings and feeling those entering his home were ganging up on him. “I wasn’t thinking I was just (inaudible) ... they’re ganging up on me. So I killed her too.”
Orput played a sound bite taken from the digital recorder retrieved from Smith’s basement from 24 minutes before the shooting occurred.
Smith is heard saying, “In your left eye.”
Orput showed jurors an autopsy photo showing Haile Kifer was shot in the left eye.
“Is that fear or is that a plan?” Orput asked.
Sounds of Brady and Kifer’s final moments were heard as well as sounds of Smith muttering alone in his basement.
Smith is heard calling Kifer, “bitch,” talking about the mess he had to clean up, and referring to Brady and Kifer as vermin.
In a longer monologue captured on the audio recording, Orput said Smith rationalized his actions:
“I’m sorry. So much regret.
“I try to be a good person. I try to do what I should. Be friendly to other people. Help them when I can. Try to be a good citizen. Not cheat people. Be fair.
“A bad family raises a bad person like this. And because I try to be a decent person they think I’m a patsy. I’m a sucker. They think I’m there for them to take advantage of.
Is this the reward for being a good person? And then they dump this mess on me.
“It’s a mess like spilled food. It’s not a mess like vomit, it’s not even a mess like diarrhea. Then they take slice by slice out of me.”
After the audio of the shooting concluded, Orput paused asking the jurors, “Does that sound like fear to you?”
While Orput narrated the 29 minutes of condensed audio recovered from Smith’s basement, Smith sat forward in his chair, hands folded over his mouth.
After the first shots were fired, and jurors heard Brady tumble down Smith’s basement stares, Smith was visibly shaken, hands trembling, his eyes closed, several times wiping away tears.
When court recessed following the prosecution’s closing argument, Smith laid his head down on the table in front of him.
Defense attorney Steven Meshbesher recounted the events of Thanksgiving Day 2012 with a perspective different from the prosecution’s.
Meshbesher showed jurors photos of Brady’s red Mitsubishi Eclipse recovered from Smith’s neighborhood days after the shooting. He 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 inferred 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.
“If they hadn’t (broken into Smith’s home) on Nov. 22 we wouldn’t be here today,” Meshbesher said.
Meshbesher said the teens came into Smith’s home uninvited. “They chose to go into that home and walk downstairs,” he said.
Meshbesher 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.”
Meshbesher maintained Smith acted in fear. He said Smith was a victim, confused, scared.
He called the prosecution’s use of audio recordings from Smith’s basement dramatic and incomplete. He said the prosecution left key parts out of the condensed recording including sounds of Smith removing light bulbs after the shooting occurred.
Meshbesher presented jurors with three charts showing the degrees of guilt and explained that anything less than proof beyond all reasonable doubt is still not guilty.
“Before anybody on this jury votes to convict anybody for any crime there has to be no room for any reasonable doubt,” he said.
Meshbesher questioned some of the items taken from Smith’s home that were not tested for finger or palm prints, including the steel rod discovered inside of Smith’s broken upstairs windows.
“These are standard tests today,” Meshbesher alleged. “We had some of the evidence but they didn’t do anything with it.”
Meshbesher said the recurring burglaries at Smith’s home were so numerous he lost track of how many there actually were.
“He became more and more afraid to live alone in his home,” Meshbesher said.
Meshbesher explained that reasonable people try to avoid conflict, but a reasonable person wouldn’t attempt to persuade an intruder to act reasonably.
“He was confronted with a situation and he had to do something,” Meshbesher said.
Meshbesher accused the prosecution of using emotion, not fact to fulfill its burden of proof. He said Brady and Kifer were committing a felony in Smith’s home and that he didn’t pursue them — that he remained in his home the whole time.
“They came into his house. He did not invite them,” Meshbesher said. “To turn it around is what we call injustice — it isn’t right.”
Meshbesher concluded by telling jurors there is no perfect scenario in this case.
“None of us have experienced this kind of confrontation.”, he said. “None of you have had to kill somebody. None of you have been attacked in your own home.”
He said Brady and Kifer made bad choices and their choices led to their deaths, but that Smith’s actions to cooperate with authorities were courageous.
“The courage that Byron Smith has is from the knowledge is that he is not guilty and that you the jury will vindicate him,” he said. “Let Byron Smith go home.”
Orput gave a short rebuttal to Meshbesher’s closing argument, defusing comments about the evidence, like the steel pipe, that was not tested.
“You know the evidence,” Orput said. “I’m just going to ask you again — do the right thing.”
SARAH NELSON KATZENBERGER may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5879.