Byron David Smith Part 1: The Limits of Home Defense
Byron David Smith
Part 1: The Limits of Home Defense
On Thanksgiving Day, 2012, retired Air Force veteran Byron David Smith killed two teenagers who forcibly broke into his home. In the aftermath of the killings, prosecutors charged Smith with two counts of second-degree murder. Not long afterward, a grand jury upped the ante, indicting him on two counts of first-degree murder. At trial, after a short three-hour deliberation, a jury convicted the home defender on all four counts. As a result, Smith is currently serving a life sentence for murdering two people who forcibly broke into his home. How does that happen?
Firearms instructor and CCW Safe contributor Steve Moses says that some armed home defenders have an attitude of “if an intruder comes into this house, I own them; they’ve turned their life over to me.” It’s an extreme interpretation of the Castle Doctrine, and as the Smith case shows, it is not true. The Castle Doctrines allows armed home defender’s a number of presumptions, but it is not a license to kill.
In response to the controversy surrounding Smith’s arrest, Morrison County Sheriff Michael Wetzel told reporters, “This isn’t about whether you have the right to protect yourself in your home. You clearly do. That’s a given. This is a case about where the limits are — before and after a threat to you or your home occurs.”
The Sheriff specifically notes the relevance of events that occur “before and after a threat.” Don West, criminal defense attorney and National Trial Counsel for CCW Safe, says, “Most people think of a self-defense scenario as being the moment surrounding when the trigger is pulled — the seconds before and perhaps the seconds after. What I’ve learned trying these cases is that ‘the moments before’ can extend to weeks or months or years before, to include the individual’s background, training, and prior encounters. What happens afterward is also part of the overall assessment. It’s called ‘the totality of the circumstances.’”
To understand how Smith was convicted of murder for defending his own home, we have to look before and after the moments he shot the intruders.
Smith had been the victim of burglaries in the recent past. Although he never reported the intrusions, he claimed his house had been broken into multiple times, and he said during the most recent incident, the intruders absconded with valuable gold coins, firearms, and irreplaceable family heirlooms.
Earlier on the day of the shootings, Smith moved his pickup truck down the street. In a recorded statement to police, Smith claimed he moved the vehicle because he didn’t want anyone vandalizing it while he was working in the garage. “I now realize why they came there while I was still there,” Smith told an investigator. “They thought I was gone.” Prosecutors didn’t believe that Smith wasn’t aware of the effect moving his truck would have. They accused him of moving the truck in an effort to lure the teens into breaking into the house.
Smith also revealed that in the moments leading up to the shootings, he had witnessed the teens casing the property thanks to a four-camera surveillance system he had set up. Footage shows the teens walking around the house and looking into windows for several minutes before finally breaking in. Instead of calling out to the teens to get off his property, and instead of calling the police, Smith decided to retreat to his basement.
Prosecutors set the scene at trial: “He’s down in the basement, in a chair, tucked between two bookcases at the bottom of the stairs. He said he was down there reading a book … with his Mini-14, a .22 caliber revolver, some energy bars, and a bottle of water.” The prosecutor suggested that any hunters on the jury might recognize the similarity between Smith’s set-up and a deer stand. Smith, the state argued, was hunting the teens who broke into his home.
We know what happens over the next several minutes because Smith captured the audio on a small digital recorder. When the first teen opened the door to the basement and came slowly down the stairs, Smith fired, sending 17-year-old Nick Brady tumbling to the floor. When the second teen began descending the steps, Smith fired at her as well, causing 18-year-old Haile Kifer to fall down the steps. Had these been the only shots that Smith had fired — despite the evidence that had lured the teens to his home — he may still have been able to make a credible self-defense claim; it’s what happened next that practically guaranteed his conviction.
Nick Brady survived the first shots and the tumble to the basement floor, but as he was lying there — unarmed and incapacitated — Smith approached and shot Brady in the face, killing him. Smith wrapped Brady’s body in a tarp, dragged it to a corner of the basement, and then he sat down, reloaded his firearm, and waited several minutes for Haile Kifer. Like Brady, Kifer survived the initial shot and the fall down the stairs. While she was on the ground, Smith approached her and shot her under the chin, execution-style. He wrapped up her body, too, and dragged it to a dark corner. On the disturbing audio recording Smith made of the homicides, he can be heard saying, “I don’t see them as human. I see them as vermin.”
In the immediate aftermath of the shootings, Smith decided not to report the incident. The next day he called his neighbor to ask for advice on hiring a lawyer. He told the neighbor that he had “solved the break-ins in the neighborhood.” The neighbor called the authorities.
In written pleadings to the court, prosecutors accused Smith of “premeditating self-defense.” They say his behavior before and after the deadly encounter demonstrated a motive for the homicides. The lesson for concealed carriers is that there is no such thing as “premeditated self-defense.” Self-defense only occurs when a defender has a reasonable belief that they are facing an imminent threat of great bodily harm or death. As a defender, you cannot legally manufacture the conditions where imminent peril seems apparent in an effort to justify a homicide. Moreover, once you’ve neutralized a threat, you cannot continue to use deadly force, no matter how justified you may have been moments before. Remember, as an armed defender, the decisions you make well before and well after a self-defense shooting can have a huge bearing on whether or not your use of force is ultimately found to be justified.
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