Byron Smith's attorney files federal appeal
The case against Byron Smith--who is serving two concurrent life sentences, without the possibility of parole, for killing two teens who broke into his home in Little Falls in 2012--may head to federal court for a new trial.
The case against Byron Smith-who is serving two concurrent life sentences, without the possibility of parole, for killing two teens who broke into his home in Little Falls in 2012-may head to federal court for a new trial.
Steven Meshbesher, attorney for Smith, filed the required paperwork Friday to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. In the memorandum, Meshbesher argued Morrison County District Judge Douglas Anderson violated federal law when he closed the courtroom during Smith's murder trial in April 2014, to discuss the district court's ruling on a pretrial evidentiary issue.
Smith, 68, was convicted by a jury in Morrison County District Court of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of Haile Kifer and Nick Brady, who broke into his home in Little Falls on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 22, 2012. The case received national attention with hot debate over how far a homeowner may go to defend himself and his property.
Meshbesher filed a habeas corpus, the next step after losing the Minnesota State Supreme Court of Appeals decision when it upheld Smith's life sentence without parole. A writ of habeas corpus is a court order used to bring a prisoner before the court to determine if the person's imprisonment or detention is lawful.
By phone, Meshbesher said a habeas corpus means a live hearing in court when witnesses and Smith would be present.
"We've been assigned a federal judge and a federal magistrate judge, and we're saying the federal Constitution was not followed," Meshbesher said of filing the writ of habeas corpus. "When the state judge closed the courtroom doors, that is a violation of the federal law. It should be a violation of state law. There is a thing called freedom of the press and you just can't close courtroom doors. ... Afterwards the prosecution tried to make up a story that it wasn't really during the trial, but he certainly didn't do that. The explanations as far as I am concerned is not true."
Monday, the federal magistrate judge issued an order that the state has 30 days to respond to Smith's appeal, and then Meshbesher has 30 days to respond.
"We are gonna fight this thing," Meshbesher said. "We're not done fighting the fight. This is an ugly case and it went through a lot of twists and turns, and he did not get a fair trial.
"There was a lot of evidence that was kept out and the judge closed the courtroom doors and he should not have done that. I don't think the judge understood the significance with it at the time and now we are in federal court."
Meshbesher said if the federal judge determines Anderson violated federal law, Smith would be granted a new trial. State authorities would either retry the case or release Smith.
More on the case
In 2012, Smith shot and killed two teenage cousins after they broke into his home and left them in his basement overnight. Smith, a retired security engineer with the U.S. State Department and Little Falls native, said he was defending himself.
During the trial, Meshbesher said Smith acted out of fear after multiple home break-ins. Under Minnesota law, a person may use deadly force to prevent a felony from taking place in one's home or dwelling.
The state's prosecutor, Washington County attorney Peter Orput, said during the trial Smith crossed the line between self-defense and murder. Prosecutors said after wounding the teenagers, who were unarmed, Smith should have called police. Authorities said Smith planned the killings, moved his vehicle away from the home, sat in his basement as surveillance equipment nearby showed the teenagers breaking in, shot them repeatedly and in the head after they were wounded and on the basement floor.
Smith's own audio recordings of the event showed 11 minutes passed between the time he killed Brady and when he shot Kifer. During that time Smith wrapped Brady's body in a tarp and moved him to another room and reloaded his gun. The Ramsey County Medical Examiner reported Brady was shot three times and Kifer six times.
Smith left the bodies in his basement overnight. A neighbor, at Smith's request, called law enforcement the following day. Smith told investigators he didn't call law enforcement because he didn't want to trouble them on the Thanksgiving holiday.
Smith did not testify during the trial, as he was advised not to take the stand by his attorney. The trial began April 21, 2014. Closing arguments began eight days later.
A pool of 140 jurors were assembled in the court's process to obtain its jury panel. The jury reached its verdict after about three hours and 20 minutes of deliberation. Smith was sentenced to life in prison.