LITTLE FALLS, Minn. - Attorneys will begin selecting jurors today to decide whether a central Minnesota man acted reasonably in November 2012 when he repeatedly shot and killed two teens or whether his actions amounted to a cold-blooded, calculated execution.
After 65-year-old Byron Smith shot a teen, 17-year-old Nick Brady, who had entered his home, authorities say he dragged the boy's bloodied body into a basement workshop, sat down - and waited.
When another teen, 18-year-old Haile Kifer, began descending the stairway minutes later, Smith fired again. The girl tumbled down the stairs and he shot her some more, including what he allegedly called "a good, clean finishing shot" into her head as she gasped for air, according to a criminal complaint.
It was Thanksgiving Day, 2012, and Smith left the teens' bodies in his basement overnight before asking a neighbor to call police, the complaint said.
Smith, of Little Falls, claims he was defending himself. Though the teens were unarmed, he told police he'd been burglarized before and feared they had a weapon. He faces two counts of premeditated, first-degree murder in a case that rocked this quiet city of about 8,000 and stirred debate about just how far a person can go to protect one's home from a potential threat.
The trial is expected to stir up emotion in this rural area that straddles the Mississippi River about 100 miles northwest of Minneapolis. Many residents who spoke to The Associated Press said that the teens were wrong to enter Smith's home - but that he went too far. Still, some believe Smith was justified. Morrison County Sheriff Michel Wetzel's office received several calls in the days after the killings, some of them critical of the charges.
"There will always be those people that think that he did nothing wrong, regardless of the facts," Wetzel told the AP last week. "But once all the facts are known, I think the number of people who think he did nothing wrong is going to be reduced dramatically."
Under Minnesota law, a person may use deadly force to prevent a felony from taking place in one's home or dwelling, but authorities have said Smith crossed a line when he continued to shoot the teens after they were no longer a threat.
Smith's attorney, Steve Meshbesher, said the evidence will show his client is innocent of the accusations against him. Prosecutor Pete Orput said he is looking forward to letting jurors decide whether Smith's actions were premeditated.
Messages left with family members of the victims were not returned.
According the complaint, Smith told authorities he was in his basement that Thanksgiving Day when he heard a window break upstairs and heard footsteps in his house. He saw Brady coming down the basement stairwell, then shot him. Brady fell. And as Brady was looking up at Smith, Smith shot him the face, the complaint said.
The complaint said Smith told an investigator: "I want him dead."
Smith said he dragged Brady's body into his workshop, then sat in a chair. When Kifer came down the stairs, he shot her too. After she fell, he tried to shoot her again but his gun jammed, and she laughed, the complaint said. Smith pulled out another gun and shot her several times in the chest, acknowledging he fired "more shots than I needed to," the complaint said.
He allegedly dragged her into the room with Brady. Kifer was still gasping for air, so he fired what he called a "good, clean finishing shot" under her chin "up into the cranium," the complaint said.
Smith is a retired security engineer for the U.S. Department of State. His job would have focused on technical security issues for U.S. embassies, such as building layout and alarms.
Meshbesher, Smith's attorney, has said Smith's home had been broken into a half-dozen times in the months before the shootings, and he installed a security system to protect himself.
Evidence expected to be presented at trial includes video surveillance of the teens entering Smith's home, as well as an audio recording of the killings. Prosecutors have said the audio tape shows four shots were fired at Brady, and that Kifer can be heard 10 minutes later saying, "Nick?" before more shots were fired. Prosecutors have said Smith can be heard telling Kifer: "You're dying."
Assistant Morrison County Attorney Todd Kosovich has said the killings were an "ambush" and that Smith removed light bulbs from sockets and sat by a tall bookcase so the teens couldn't see him as they came downstairs.
Kifer and Brady were cousins and were well-known in the community. Both were involved in sports, and Kifer worked several part-time jobs, according to online obituaries.
But a different picture of the teens emerged after their deaths. Authorities have said a car linked to Brady and Kifer contained prescription drugs that had been stolen from another house, apparently the day before they were killed. And court documents from another case show Brady had burglarized Smith's property at least twice in the months before he was shot.
Some residents said they were anxious for the trial to start and that it will bring some answers.
"So many things just don't make sense," said Bernie Jeub, 69, of Royalton, a community near Little Falls. "There's no doubt about it - the kids shouldn't have been there. But did he have to do what he did?"
Kathy Carlson, 57, of Little Falls, said the killings made her angry.
"He should go down," she said of Smith. "They didn't have the right to go stealing, but he didn't have the right to kill them."
If convicted of first-degree murder, Smith faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release.