Byron Smith pleads not guilty | BrainerdDispatch.com | Brainerd, Minnesota

Byron Smith pleads not guilty

Posted: January 23, 2014 - 1:03pm

LITTLE FALLS — Accused murderer Byron Smith entered a plea of not guilty Thursday.

Smith, 65, faces two counts of first-degree murder in the Thanksgiving Day 2012 shooting deaths of Haile Kifer, 18, and her cousin Nicholas Brady, 16.

Smith’s attorney Steven Meshbesher entered the plea before Judge Douglas Anderson in Morrison County District Court in Little Falls.

Smith previously admitted to shooting the teens after the pair allegedly broke into his rural Little Falls home Thanksgiving Day. According to the criminal complaint, Smith shot the teenagers several times after they walked down his basement stairs.

A pre-trial hearing is scheduled at 1 p.m. March 25. Anderson expects jury selection to begin the week of April 14 with an anticipated trial date of April 21. Anderson invited input from attorneys on both sides in drafting a questionnaire for potential jurors.

The state’s prosecutor, Washington County attorney Peter Orput, filed a Blakely motion before the court seeking aggravated departure from sentencing should a jury come back with a guilty on second-degree murder charges. Prior to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Blakely, it was up the judge to decide if there aggravating factors to depart from sentencing guidelines. Now a jury may green light such a decision looking at whether the crime involved particular cruelty, if victims were particularly vulnerable or if aid was not rendered to them, Orput said following the hearing.

After a denial by the state Court of Appeal, Meshbesher told the court he is in the process of filing a petition as early as next week with the Minnesota Supreme Court. Meshbesher said he didn’t want the not guilty plea to be interpreted as a waiver against that pending petition.

Meshbesher earlier sought a Court of Appeals review of Anderson’s decision to deny a defense motion seeking dismissal of the grand jury’s indictment against his client. The defense argued the indictment wasn’t supported by probable cause, that the grand jury did not properly deliberate or vote on the indictment and that the indictment should be dismissed for cumulative errors.

The defense also argued statements Smith made to police at the scene before and after his arrest should be suppressed along with evidence obtained from the home after search warrants were issued.

In Anderson’s court order, filed Nov. 22, 2013, those motions were denied as being without merit.

In the Nov. 22 order, Anderson stated the defense argued evidence regarding Brady’s and Kifer’s criminal history — such as Brady and two other juveniles pulling a stop sign out of the ground or Kifer being caught shoplifting at a local grocery store — was wrongfully omitted from the evidence submitted to the grand jury.

Anderson stated as Smith didn’t know the identities of Kifer or Brady as they entered his house, their prior criminal history would have no bearing on his state of mind at the time of the shooting.

Also in his Nov. 22 order, Anderson said the grand jury heard ample evidence to find probably cause that Smith “wrongfully and unlawfully caused the deaths” of Brady and Kifer and did so with premeditation.

In regard to premeditation for the first-degree murder charges, the defense stated there was a failure to distinguish first-degree murder from second-degree murder. Premeditation requires some time to pass between forming the intent and carrying out the act, the court noted.

In his order, Anderson stated a sentence in the grand jury instructions was a misstatement as it implied premeditation may be instantaneous with the act. The court stated any omission of a word in one sentence of the instructions was compensated for in following sentences stating “a premeditated decision to kill may be reached in a short period of time. However, an unconsidered or rash impulse, even though it includes an intent to kill, is not premeditated.”

The district court order stated: “Moreover, regardless of the omission, there was sufficient evidence presented to the grand jury for it to find probable cause that defendant considered, planned, prepared for and determined to kill Nicholas Brady and Haile Kifer. It will be for the finder of fact at trial to determine whether the state has met its burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

About the case

■ Morrison County Sheriff’s deputies went to Smith’s home north of Little Falls the day after Thanksgiving in 2012 after a hearing from a neighbor who thought Smith had killed someone in his home.

■ When deputies arrived, the sheriff’s office reported Smith met them outside, recounted the break-in and what happened and told them the victims’ bodies were in his basement.

■ Smith told investigators he didn’t call law enforcement because he didn’t want to trouble them on the holiday. Smith called a neighbor to ask if he knew any lawyers and when the neighbor wasn’t able to assist him, Smith previously said he asked the neighbor to call law enforcement and have an deputy arrive in an unmarked squad car. Deputies arrived in uniform and in marked vehicles.

■ Smith made an audio recording of the shootings and had a surveillance system that recorded video of the teenagers as they broke in. The court record puts the break-in about noon through a bedroom window.

■ One of the defense arguments of errors before the grand jury listed the prosecutor’s opening statement that Smith viewed the teenagers breaking in. Anderson said the statement was “based on evidence the surveillance system was operative and readily accessible to Smith, as well as other circumstantial evidence tending to suggest that defendant anticipated an unauthorized entry into his home.”

At the time, a Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent testified it was unknown if Smith watched the entry but it was a possibility because the surveillance equipment was set up in a room adjacent to where he was sitting.

■ According to the prosecution and criminal complaint, Smith shot Brady as the teenager descended the stairs to the basement and then shot Brady in the face at point blank range before rolling his body into a tarp. Prosecutors said the audio recordings show Smith had a tarp ready to roll Brady’s body in within 18 seconds of the final shots taken at Brady.

■ Prosecutors said recordings show Smith reloaded his gun and shot Kifer as she descended the stairs. Prosecutors said the recording shows Smith’s gun jammed before more shots were heard. After Kifer fell to the floor, prosecutors said a minute and 15 seconds passed on the tape before the final shots were recorded as Smith shot Kifer in the head three times.

In previous court hearings, Meshbesher stated Brady and Kifer entered Smith’s home illegally and were accused of breaking into other homes and stealing narcotics. Meshbesher said Smith is presumed innocent until proven otherwise.

RENEE RICHARDSON, senior reporter, may be reached at 855-5852 or renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Dispatchbizbuzz.