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Byron Smith

Byron Smith

In Minnesota, a 65-year-old man named Byron Smith, of Little Falls, is currently on trial for first-degree murder. The charge: he killed Haile Kifer, 18, and her 17-year-old friend Nick Brady on Thanksgiving Day 2012, after they broke into his home.

Our friend and correspondent Starlette McDaniel asked us on Facebook: “Do you have any opinions on this case?”

Yes, we do, and they’re decidedly mixed.

Starlette McDaniel offered her own sensitive and insightful opinion on Facebook:

“I find it truly sad, and he should be charged with murder. Oh this is so sad! I don’t know how I feel about this. I would shoot someone who broke into my home, because I would automatically feel threatened. But to shoot two unarmed teens and THEN shoot them again as they are lying helpless on the floor just to make sure they are dead… I couldn’t have done that. He went beyond his legal rights. And then he didn’t even call the police afterward.”

As a general rule, American law does not permit deadly force in defense of property. There has to be some perceived risk of bodily harm. Minnesota, however, has a more specific statute on the books that allows deadly force to prevent a felony. And personally, we find the general rule somewhat fuzzy and unsatisfactory. If someone breaks into your home, we think it is reasonable to presume that the intruder is prepared to inflict bodily harm or worse in pursuit of the crime. Break-ins in which home residents are present usually take place at night, and it is often difficult, if not impossible, to know in the brief seconds you have to evaluate whether or not you and your family are  in physical danger.

Therefore, we don’t think there are many situations in which we would fault a homeowner for shooting an intruder.

On the other hand . . .

In this particular case, evidence has been presented that Mr. Smith, a retired security engineer for the U.S. Department of State, was already fearful of a home break-in, reputedly because of past incidents. He waited patiently in his basement, armed with two firearms and supplied with energy  bars and water bottles, for a burglary to occur.

Apparently, Smith had set up surveillance audio and video. The audio recorded the sound of breaking glass, followed by heavy breathing and footsteps. As Nick Brady came down the basement stairs, Smith allegedly shot him, then shot him twice more. When Haile Kifer came down to look for him, he allegedly shot her, then shot her again. Then Smith said, “I’m safe now.” For several hours after the killings, he can be heard muttering to himself and at one point saying, “I don’t see them as human. I see them as vermin.”

Neither teen was armed.

Instead of calling the police right away, Smith waited until the next day, then asked a neighbor to make the call.

Given all of this, it does seem that the shootings were at least somewhat less than spontaneous reactions to an unexpected threat. The fact that he allegedly shot each intruder more than once also doesn’t look very good, nor does the fact that he didn’t call the police and tell them what had just happened.

On the “third” hand . . .

Simply stated, two teens perpetrated a high risk crime. Burglars are criminals and age is no factor. The homeowner did not feel safe. The burglars didn’t do their homework and picked the wrong house and the wrong victim, whose state of mind was perhaps paranoid, but during the court proceedings his attorney will, in all probability, tell the jurors why his client felt fearful for his life.

From the defendant’s point of view, this is a case where, as the saying goes, “I’d rather be judged by twelve than carried by six.”

The verdict is likely to be Not Guilty of first-degree murder, perhaps some lesser charge, or a hung jury. It is also possible in light of what is heard on the recordings, that Mr. Smith was not, as Shakespeare’s King Lear put it, “in his perfect mind.” That also will be something for the jury to decide.

We agree with Starlette that this case is truly sad – for everyone. We wish those two teens were still alive and that Mr. Smith did not have to stand trial. But we also know that none of this would have happened if two teens had not broken into this house. And we feel that anyone who does decide to break into a house should know the risks he or she is taking, including the possibility of being killed. If they knew these risks and did it anyway, then the responsibility lies with them. If they didn’t, then they were stupid.

And sometimes, stupidity can be deadly.

10 Responses to Reasonable Response or Murder?

  1. I_The_Stranger says:

    In my opinion, the conditions for good use of a gun are the following:

    1. You’d better be sober, not on drugs, and in an overall “mentally responsible” state of mind…
    2. You’d better know how to approach situations that might be dangerous to avoid deadly confusions (like a situation escalating because your ‘target’, though innocent, is worried that YOU are a criminal stalking him).
    3. You’d better evaluate your shooting ability well enough and only shoot when you know you are able to shoot the “right guy” rather than the innocent bystander.
    4. You should know when NOT to use the gun (not all situations warrant gun use).
    5. You should understand that guns are for self-defense, courts are for justice.

    I am afraid this guy appears to have totally failed on point 5. He may also have failed on other points, though without knowing how the situation unfolded, it is more difficult to know…

    My fear is that the general sentiment tends to be: if I am a good person overall, law-abiding and responsible, then I cannot be wrong with a gun… But I am afraid that if cops have to undergo in-depth training before they are handed out their guns and badges, it is because a lot can go wrong for the untrained person suddenly faced with an unusual and threatening situation.

    • Excellent analysis. Thanks!

    • So how much pain and loss must one suffer at the hands of a home invader before one can feel justified in shoot them?

      A police officer carries a gun openly and always. He may feel indignant at the behavior of a scofflaw motorist but he must be trained not to shoot him however tempted he may be.

      If someone breaks into my home, however, I’m going to think the worst. “Better to be tried by 12 than carried by 6.”

  2. Cornerstone says:

    I agree that Byron Smith had issues, but I have no way of knowing whether his paranoia started inside his head or as a result of a prior experience that left him that way.

    Speaking as someone who was terrorized for over six months by a 15-year-old stranger who broke in twice and stole valuables and, more significantly, all my underwear, cut the cord on my phone and took my dad’s loaned deer rifle on the first occurrence, I think if someone breaks into your home and you are there, that you are not in any state in those short few seconds to assess whether or not you are in danger and that you should assume you are in danger, and you should be allowed to do anything you want to the person or persons who broke into your home. There is one guilty party in that scenario, the one who broke in and doesn’t belong there and is of unknown risk but, by the very act of breaking and entering, the scale tips in the direction of being dangerous far more than in the direction of being harmless.

    Anyone who hasn’t been the victim of a home invasion just doesn’t get it. You are never the same. You never really feel safe again. I never laid eyes on that teen who terrorized me, and he aggressively tried to scare me every way he could until he finally got put in some detention home. His identity was known to police shortly after the first break-in, but he was a minor and their hands were tied.

    After the second break-in, I went down to the police station at 4 a.m. to ask to speak to a juvenile detective. He pulled the kid’s file and it was literally that cliche you may have seen sometime on a cop show on tv where the printout was six feet long, and they’d never done anything to him because he was a minor. If I hadn’t had a friend’s brother who worked in detention intervene, the kid probably would have terrorized me until I moved.

    Until he stole, it I kept that deer rifle loaded laying on the floor beside me and if I’d heard a window break, I’d have fired in that direction. We can’t give the victim and the criminal equal weight in these instances because the criminal is who got the ball rolling; otherwise, nothing bad ever would have happened. We can’t ask victims to be psychics. They have a right to defend themselves and their property.

    • seesthru says:

      Defense is one thing. Overkill and then waiting until the next day to have someone call authorities is entirely another. FYI I have been the intended prey for a stalker who prowled my house multiple times PER WEEK. Law enforcement couldn’t stop him, they were too far away and I lived in the boonies. I would have shot and killed him if I could have. Just enough, and I’d have called authorities BEFORE I did. I finally had to leave my home. I did fire a warning shot at the man and his brother, but I didn’t kill. It was illegal to kill in broad daylight in my driveway. I wanted to. But I obeyed the law and warned them off from trying a daytime attack. True story. For years I could not sleep at night. I slept with gun under pillow, at the ready. I had night terrors, PTSD at it’s finest. I felt helpless and unsafe, because LE didn’t get the bad guy and it seemed they didn’t care. As much as I hated the guy, I would not have shot him dead then left him overnight before calling police. THAT action is the shooters undoing. If he truly was interested in protecting himself and in ONLY that, he’s have not waited to call.

  3. I have recently read Rebecca Morris’ book, Ted and Ann. Many people in Tacoma Washington believe that Ted Bundy killed his first victim when he was 14-years-old, with some implication from Mr. Bundy himself.

    Ann Burr was an 8-year-old neighbor of Bundy’s uncle. On August 30, 1961 someone came into the Burr home in a secure suburb of Tacoma and abducted the child. Nothing else is known for a fact. Her body was never found.

    Home invasion is a gate-way crime and it is often committed by young kids. It is a terrifying experience for the victims and it is a great risk for the perpetrators. While it does sound like Mr. Smith has some mental issues that need to be addressed, he obviously had good reason for his concern. There’s an old saying, “Just because you’re paranoid it does not mean people are not out to get you.” Obviously this duo of thieves targeted Smith for a reason.

    I think this is clearly a case of self defense. In the same instance I might not have shot them twice but I use hollow point rounds. I can only think right now how many lives would have been saved had Don Burr heard a sound that night in August ’61 and shot Ted Bundy at the age of 14. When you’ve taken your fantasies so far as to break into someone’s home, you’ve painted a target on your back no matter how old you are.

    • seesthru says:

      I’ve no cause to fault him for shooting them. Shooting again after they were down and no threat, then leaving them overnight before getting LE in there… That is the issue. That is where he proves it was more than self protection, it was calculate vengeance. Yeah they volunteered to get shot. But he, left them no chance for survival. Who knows how long it really took them to die on his floor?

      • I suspect he waited overnight to call the police so he could first speak with his attorney. That is what I would do in the same circumstance. There was no rush at that point. They weren’t going anywhere.

  4. seesthru says:

    Smith went far overboard, All of his actions point to premeditated murder. All of his actions after he fired the kill shots into the wounded burglars showed that he meant for them to die, he wasn’t protecting his home, he was exacting revenge for prior break-ins.

    The burglars know intellectually they could get shot. However, teens always think it only happens to “the other guy”. They made a deadly choice. Smith made a deadly choice.

    I wonder if Smith feels he has his power back now, or if he realizes that he sank to a level lower than those he feels stole his power, proving he never had true power in the first place? Was it worth two lives to him ?

    It’s sad. However actions speak loudly here. He didn’t have to kill. He didn’t have to wait for daylight. He didn’t have to get someone else to make the call. But he did. He wanted them to have no chance of being resuscitated. He wanted them to stay dead. He wasn’t protecting, he was hunting.

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