The Limits of the Castle Doctrine
Lessons from the Byron David Smith Case
Part 2: The Role of Location in the Legal Defense of David Byron Smith
In our series The Four Elements of Self-Defense, we’re exploring how location, escalation, reasonable fear, and post-incident accidents can affect the legal defense in the wake of a self-defense shooting. In our last installment, we reviewed the central facts in the Byron David Smith case. Now we’ll look at how the location of the shooting factored into the legal defense.
A day after Byron David Smith shot and killed two teens who broke into his Little Falls, Minnesota home, he admitted to police that he shot the intruder more times than was necessary.
Less than a month before, Smith reported a break-in, claiming burglars had absconded thousands of dollars worth of gold coins and sentimental items such as medals he earned serving as an airman in Vietnam. He claimed to have been victim to several other break-ins over the preceding year, and he felt so insecure in his own home that he had resorted to carrying a holstered pistol -- even when simply doing household chores.
Clearly, he imagined a day when he would have to defend himself in his own home, and that day arrived on Thanksgiving 2012. Smith saw teens Nick Brady and Haile Kifer casing his property and peeking into windows. He retreated to his basement and waited. When Brady broke in and ventured down the steps, Smith shot and killed him. When Kiefer followed ten minutes later, Smith shot and killed her too.
The Morrison County Sheriff's Department investigated the shootings and they quickly arrested Smith for second degree murder. When more evidence came to light, a grand jury recommended first-degree charges. The decision to arrest received national attention, outraging gun-rights advocates who felt the prosecution violated the Castle Doctrine.
The Castle Doctrine tells us that, when we are in our home, we have no duty to retreat when faced with the threat of imminent death or bodily harm, and that we may defend ourselves with force, including deadly force. While it is generally agreed that a forceful intruder presents an imminent threat, there are limits to how much force is considered reasonable and therefore justified. As the case of Byron David Smith teaches us, the Castle Doctrine protects homeowners forced to shoot in self-defense, but it does not protect a homeowner who executes burglars in his basement.
Morrison County Sheriff told the Minneapolis Star Tribune “This isn't a case about whether you have the right to protect yourself in your home. You clearly do. That's a given.”
“Rather,” he says, “this is a case about where the limits are.”
To provide some clarity regarding how Smith exceeded the limits of the Castle Doctrine, we can look at testimony given by pathologist Dr. Kelly Mills at trial. She said Brady was shot three times -- once in the shoulder, once in the abdomen, and the final shot went through Brady's palm and into the side of his head.
As for Kifer, Smith shot her six times -- but it was the final shot that caused the most concern -- a single shot placed under her chin.
In self-defense, every shot counts. In order for a shooting to be justified, the first and the last shot must all be considered reasonable compared to the threat.
The first shots Smith fired, as the Intruders each descended into his basement, may very well have been justified. But once the teens had been shot, tumbled down the stairs, and we're spread prostrate on the floor, the immediate threat they once posed vanished. The final shots -- the one in Brady's head, and the one in Keifer’s chin -- weren't necessary to end the danger. They were excessive, and in court, prosecutors described the final shots as executions.
The lesson for the gun owner concerned with home defense is that there are limits to the Castle Doctrine. In the extreme, Smith's case illustrates that, while it might be justifiable to fire at an intruder who forcibly enters your home, it's not justifiable to shoot them in the head when they lay wounded on the floor begging for their lives. In any self-defense scenario, it is only acceptable to use force that is reasonably necessary to eliminate an imminent threat. Once the threat is neutralized, the use of force is no longer justified.
In our next installment, we’ll look at how Smith's actions escalated his confrontation with Dede, and how it factored into his prosecution.