The Limits of the Castle Doctrine- The Facts of the Byron David Smith Case
The Limits of the Castle Doctrine
Lessons from the Byron David Smith Case
Part 1: The Facts of the Case
On Thanksgiving Day 2012, Byron David Smith confronted two teens who had broken into his home, and he shot them both. 18-year-old Haile Kifer and 17-year-old Nick Brady died in Smith’s basement.
Smith considered himself a patriot. A veteran of Vietnam and one-time Boy Scout troop leader, Smith served at the U.S. State Department before retiring and returning to a house built by his family in his hometown of Little Falls, Minnesota.
But not everything in Little Falls was as Smith remembered; crime was on the rise. In the year leading up to the shooting, Smith claims to have endured up to 12 break-ins — although he reported only one incident to law enforcement. On October 27, 2012, police began investigating a burglary in which Smith reported losing firearms, thousands of dollars worth of gold coins, a watch awarded to his father for surviving a prison camp in World War II, and medals he himself had earned in Vietnam.
In the wake of the burglaries, Smith no longer felt secure in his own home. He had taken to wearing a holstered pistol, and he installed a security system, including four cameras.
“I don’t know who is going to break in when,” Smith told investigators. “I was no longer willing to live in fear.”
On the day of the shooting Smith moved his car out of his driveway and parked down the street — to make it appear, prosecutors said at trial, that he wasn’t home. Smith set an audio recorder to capture sounds in his basement. He told investigators it was for the purposes of providing extra evidence in case of a burglary.
Later in the day, the security cameras detected two teens trespassing on Smith’s property, peeking into windows. Smith retreated to his basement where he would wait for the intruders, sitting in a chair near the bottom of the stairs. Next to his chair, he positioned his Ruger Mini-14, and a .22 revolver. He also had water, snacks, and a novel to read.
At trial, prosecutors suggested that any hunters in the jury might recognize the similarity of Smith’s setup to a deer stand.
The tape recorder Smith set up captured what came next:
There is the sound of breaking glass from the window Brady shattered to enter. There is the creak of the floor boards as the teen explores upstairs. There is the sound of the basement door opening and heavy footsteps on the stairs.
A shot bursts out; the intruder grunts. Byron shoots again, sending Brady tumbling. At the foot of the stairs, he lets out a moan, and it’s answered with a final shot — to the head, we’ll learn at trial.
“You’re dead!” the shooter shouts.
During the next few moments, Smith is heard wrapping the lifeless body in a tarp and dragging it into a corner. Then Smith returns to his chair and replaces the rounds expended from his Mini-14.
Long minutes pass.
Soon, new footsteps are heard upstairs. When they grow louder, Smith’s breathing becomes audible — almost panicked. He regains his composure and holds it as the second intruder begins to descend the steps.
Smith fires again. There is a gasp — clearly a woman’s voice — expressing in shock and terror. She tumbles down the stairs. Smith tries to fire his Mini-14 again, but it jams.
“Oh sorry about that,” he says as he retrieves his .22 revolver.
“Oh my God,” Kifer screams as Smith fires another round. She continues screaming as he fire three more times.
“You’re dying!” he exclaims.
The screaming suddenly stops. There is a thud. A short pause precedes the final shot — which a pathologist at trial will testify was fired under her chin. “A nice finishing shot,” Smith would tell investigators.
Smith bundled Kifer in a tarp and dragged her body next to Brady’s. He left them rotting is his basement until the next day when Smith called his neighbor, Bill Anderson. “He told me he solved the break-ins in the neighborhood,” Anderson testified at trial. Smith asked for his advice regarding an attorney, and concerned, Anderson called law enforcement.
When Morrison County sheriff’s deputies arrived, Smith took them to see the broken window first. Then he took them to see the bodies in the basement. Later, he acknowledged to investigators that he fired more shots than needed. He was charged with two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder.
Prosecutors played the recording of the shooting three times during the six-day trial. A jury deliberated for just three hours before rendering a guilty verdict. The judge issued a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
You are seldom more justified in using deadly force than when confronting an intruder in your home, but the force must be reasonable. There are limits to what you can do to protect yourself in your own home. Morrison County Sheriff Michael Wetzel said, “This is a case about where the limits are — before and after a threat to you or your home occurs.”
In our series The Four Elements of Self-Defense, we examine high-profile cases and highlight how the elements of location, escalation, reasonable fear, and post incident actions weigh on the investigation and prosecution. While these elements are not legal standards, they are common factors in all self-defense cases. By looking at the many mistakes Byron David Smith made in regards to each of these factors, any gun owner concerned with home defense can draw important lessons that will help them understand better when using deadly force at home may be justified — and when it may not.
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 below!