Byron David Smith Part 2: Prairie Justice
Byron David Smith
Part 2: Prairie Justice
Byron David Smith was convicted of first-degree murder for killing two teenagers in his basement on Thanksgiving Day 2012. Minutes before the gruesome homicides, Smith’s video surveillance system allowed him to detect two cousins wandering around his property — 17-year-old Nick Brady and 18-year-old Haile Kifer. The video makes it clear the teens are casing the house, trying to determine if anyone is home. Instead of alerting the teens to his presence, Smith quietly retreated to his basement where he sat and waited for them, armed with a Mini-14 and a .22 caliber revolver. He activated a digital audio recorder which captured the following events.
Nick Brady breaks a window to gain entry to the house. After a couple of minutes, Brady begins to descend the stairs to the basement with heavy footfalls that strain the wooden steps. A shot rings out. Brady groans. Another shot sends the teenager tumbling down the steps. Another groan is followed by a third shot. “You’re dead!” Smith exclaims.
Smith wraps Brady’s body in a tarp and drags it into a corner of the basement. He’s out of breath as he returns to his chair at the bottom of the stairs where he replaces the rounds he expended on Brady. Long minutes pass.
Soon, Haile Kifer enters the house, plodding about on the wooden floors. As her footsteps grow louder, Smith’s breathing quickens. “Nick,” she calls out softly. There is no answer. She begins to descend the stairway to the basement. A single shot rings out. Kifer gasps as she tumbles down the steps. Smith pulls the trigger again, a misfire. “Oh, sorry about that,” he says. He draws the revolver. “Oh, my God!” Kifer cries as Smith fires another shot. While she screams, he fires twice more. “You’re dying!” he yells. The screaming stops. He fires a final round. “Bitch!” he says.
For the use of deadly force to be justified, the defender must have a reasonable belief that they face an imminent threat of great bodily harm or death, and in most jurisdictions, an armed home defender can presume that an intruder who has forcibly entered constitutes just such a threat. While it’s understandable that Smith had reason to fear the teenagers who broke into his home, it’s not fear we hear in his voice as he fires the fatal shots; it’s anger.
Byron David Smith’s anger is justifiable.
Smith’s house had been his childhood home. His father, a decorated World War II fighter pilot, had built the house in Little Falls, Minnesota after the war. He raised his family in that house, survived his wife in that house, and he left that house to Byron when he passed away.
Like his father, Byron David Smith had a distinguished career in the Air Force. Later in his life, according to MPR News, Smith “was a highly trained State Department security engineer responsible for protecting U.S. embassies from terrorism and espionage.” When Smith retired, he decided to move back home to Little Falls, but he quickly found that not everything was the way he had remembered it; crime was on the rise.
Although Smith never officially reported the break-ins he experienced, he claimed that he was the victim of multiple burglaries. In one incident, not long before the shootings, Smith claimed he lost valuable gold coins, firearms, and his father’s irreplaceable service medals. Smith’s best friend John Lange spoke to a reporter after the conviction: “All’s he wanted was peace and quiet, live on the river, fix up his mom and dad’s place. He didn’t want none of this crap.”
According to a report from WCCO, Lange said, “I’ll never forget one day we were walking back down the road, down his road and we’re carrying a bunch of stuff to my place and he just fell down on the road and started crying, and I said, ‘Byron, what’s the matter?’ and he looked back at his house and he just started crying, he said, ‘I can’t even live in my own house anymore.”
Smith was so afraid he had taken to wearing a holstered pistol while at home. Don West, criminal defense attorney and National Trial Counsel for CCW Safe, says, “There seems to be a consensus that he was genuinely fearful of being attacked and killed.” That fear, however, was a general fear, not a specific fear of a particular, imminent threat.
On Thanksgiving Day 2012, the general fear became a specific fear. Firearms instructor Steve Moses listened to the haunting audio of the shootings. “When they started coming down the steps,” Steve says, “you could very much hear Smith’s breathing accelerated. I have every reason to believe that he was genuinely in fear for his life, and if it were me in that same situation, I would be also.”
However, Smith neutralized the threat the teens posed with the first, non-fatal shots that sent them tumbling down the stairs. Once they were lying prone, incapacitated on the basement floor, Smith’s fear was overtaken by anger. Don West says, “If at some point the jury believes he acted unreasonably under the circumstances, then his claim of self-defense — no matter how strong it would presumptively be by virtue of him being in his own home — fails and he becomes guilty of the crime that he was charged with.”
The scenario Don describes is clearly what happened at trial. A jury took only three hours to convict Smith of first-degree murder, but as Smith’s friend John Lange notes, some of the jurors were in tears as the verdict was read. Clearly, at least some of the jurors felt some sympathy for Byron David Smith. Steve Moses says, “It’s easy to understand why that man would be in fear, and I got the impression that he basically had made the decision that he was not willing to live in fear anymore, and he believed that this was the only way of being able to handle that.”
Lange says Brady and Kifer “. . . got every bit what they deserved. I won’t back down on that either. They shouldn’t have been in his house.” Don West says that many of the people who commented about the case online shared Lange’s sentiment. There’s a sense among many that law enforcement wasn’t going to be able to take care of the crime problem, and it was up to homeowners like Smith to step up. Smith himself said he felt that he was doing his “civic duty” and that he had “solved the break-ins in the neighborhood.” It was prairie justice.
The problem is that we don’t live in the wild west. We don’t live under a state of Martial Law, and the concept of “prairie justice” doesn’t hold up in a criminal court. Don West quoted one online comment that may best sum up this point of view: “There is right and wrong, and there is legal and illegal, and they are not always the same.”
While Smith’s anger was justifiable, his anger did not legally justify his use of deadly force — certainly not the final fatal shots that took the lives of Nick Brady and Haile Kifer. Smith’s ongoing fear of crime in his neighborhood is understandable, but only the reasonable fear of an imminent threat of great bodily injury or death can justify shooting someone. As Don West says, “imminent means ‘right now.’”
The lesson for concealed carriers and armed defenders is that you cannot take the law into your own hands. You cannot preemptively use deadly force before an imminent threat emerges. You cannot deliberately manufacture a circumstance for the purposes of justifying the use of deadly force, and you cannot use deadly force after a threat is no longer imminent.
SHAWN VINCENT- LITIGATION CONSULTANT
Shawn Vincent is a litigation consultant who helps select juries in self-defense cases, and he manages public interest of high-profile legal matters. If you have any questions for Shawn, or would like more articles like this, let us know belo