Defense rests for Minn. man who killed two teen burglars

Haile Kifer, left, and Nick Brady
CBS Minnesota

LITTLE FALLS, Minn. - A Minnesota man charged with fatally shooting two teenagers who broke into his home on Thanksgiving Day in 2012 chose not to testify on 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. The judge said he would give the jury its instructions Monday afternoon and closing arguments would likely begin Tuesday morning.

Smith is charged with first-degree premeditated 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 their homes. Minnesota law allows a person to use deadly force to prevent a felony from taking place in one's home, but those actions must be reasonable.

Prosecutors argued that Smith sat downstairs and waited for the two cousins, and said he went too far when he continued to shoot the unarmed teens even after they posed no danger. Smith waited a day to report the killings to police.

The defense says Smith was fearful because of earlier burglaries that included theft of guns.

Private detective Ross Rolshoven, of Grand Forks, N.D., studied the layout of Smith's basement for the defense. He testified 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.

Rolshoven also said Smith served in the Air Force from 1968-1972, including a tour in Vietnam, and earned nine medals or ribbons.

The jury also heard from Smith's older 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. He also said his brother had been instrumental in training "three generations of Eagle Scouts."

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.

"I believe him to be very honest," Kathleen Lange said.

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 the judge allowed the proceedings to continue.