LITTLE FALLS, Minn. (AP) — A Minnesota man charged with fatally shooting two teenagers who broke into his home on Thanksgiving Day in 2012 chose not to testify in his own behalf Monday, and his defense rested after calling three character witnesses and a private detective who sought to bolster the homeowner's claim of self-defense.
Byron Smith, 65, of Little Falls, told Morrison County District Judge Douglas Anderson he understood his rights. He's charged with first- and second-degree murder in the deaths of 18-year-old Haile Kifer and 17-year-old Nick Brady. The retired U.S. State Department security officer told investigators he was defending himself when he shot the two cousins in his basement because he feared for his life after several break-ins.
The case has fueled debate over how far people can go in defending themselves in their homes. Smith sat downstairs and waited for the two cousins. Prosecutors argue that he went too far when he continued to shoot the unarmed teens even after they posed no danger. Smith also waited a day to report the killings to police. The defense says Smith was fearful in part because some of his guns were stolen in earlier burglaries.
Anderson set closing arguments for Tuesday morning.
The judge told the jury that Minnesota law allows people to use deadly force in self-defense if they fear death or great bodily harm, or to prevent a felony from being committed in one's dwelling. He said a defendant has no duty to retreat, but that a defendant's actions must have been "reasonable under the circumstances." He also told them to follow the law as he explained it, "even if you believe the law is or should be different."
Private detective Ross Rolshoven, of Grand Forks, N.D., studied the layout of Smith's basement for the defense. He testified Monday that if someone coming down the stairs was carrying a shotgun, shouldered and ready to fire, Smith could not have seen it until that person was most of the way down because the ceiling was in the way.
Defense attorney Steve Meshbesher showed the jury a photo of Kifer's red purse, which was found at the scene. The private investigator testified it was empty except for a drug pipe but was big enough to hold weapons.
"You could have had three or four handguns in there if you wanted," Rolshoven added.
The jury also heard from Smith's brother, Bruce Smith, 67, of Little Falls, who testified that his brother has a reputation for honesty in their central Minnesota community of 8,000.
"He's highly regarded by everyone that has known his family," Bruce Smith testified.
The defense also called two of Byron Smith's next-door neighbors, Kathleen Lange and her 16-year-old son, Dylan Lange. Smith has been living with them since the shootings.
Meshbesher asked for a mistrial when prosecutor Pete Orput asked Dylan Lange whether it was "well known around here that you don't mess with this guy." Anderson sustained the defense's objections, so Lange didn't answer, but allowed the proceedings to continue.