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Self-defense or brutal execution?

A controversial Thanksgiving Day news story out of Little Falls, Minnesota, highlighted the difference between lawful armed self-defense against home intruders and the type of actions that will open a burglary victim up to criminal charges and eventual prosecution. Sixty-year-old Byron David Smith, a retired security officer for the State Department, is on his way to becoming the poster child for what not to do and say when dealing with a burglary.

The Associated Press reported on November 26 that Smith shot and killed two home intruders, waited a day before reporting it to authorities, and then made incriminating statements to police investigators. Smith's gems ranged from admitting that he fired "more shots than I needed" to referring to the final blast that killed one of the assailants as "a good, clean finishing shot" and proclaiming that he wanted the two intruders "dead." Adding to the sensationalism of the story, the two now-deceased burglars were teenagers. Images of the fresh-faced teens, 18-year-old Haile Kifer and I7-year-old Nicholas Schaeffel, adorned news coverage of the event and added to the public scorn being heaped on a man who normally would be considered the victim.

Viewers were left with the impression that a deranged vigilante murdered two good-looking kids who more resembled clean-cut extras from the popular movie High School Musical than they did typical strung-out burglary suspects. Much as with the Trayvon Martin case, the media used images that did not portray the possible dark side of the two teenagers involved. Local police are investigating whether the two teens were involved in an earlier string of burglaries. Schaeffel might have even been involved in the theft of prescription drugs from a family member, but the records were sealed because juveniles were involved.

The fact that is not disputed at this point is that the two teenagers had indeed illegally broken into Smith's home when the shootings occurred. Smith told law enforcement that he was fearful after being the Victim of several break-ins at his rural, secluded home 10 miles south of Little Falls, which is a central Minnesota town of roughly 8,000 people. Police had a report of a break-in at Smith's from October 27 in which Smith claimed to have lost thousands of dollars in "cash, gold coins, two guns, photo equipment and jewelry." Knowing that criminals sometimes return to the scene of an earlier successful crime with the hopes of scoring more loot, Smith decided that enough was enough and was determined not to be a helpless victim again. He told investigators that he was in his basement when he heard a window breaking upstairs. He immediately armed himself with his Ruger Mini 14 rifle. Hiding in the basement, Smith prepared his weapon to shoot the intruders if they came down the stairs. The police complaint stated that Schaeffel opened the door to the basement and started coming down the stairs. Smith fired immediately once Schaeffel's waist came into view. The shots found their mark on the teenage boy, who fell down the stairs.

It should be noted that Smith was well within his legal rights at this point in time. Minnesota law allows a homeowner to use deadly force on an intruder if a reasonable person would fear he were in danger of harm. The situation described so far would normally fall within that definition, but what happened next changed the dynamic entirely. The injured teen fell to the bottom of the stairs, and Smith pointed his rifle at him and shot Schaefel directly in the face. If those details were not incriminating. enough, Smith told the district attorney's office that he wanted Schaeffel "dead."

Morrison County 'Sheriff Michel Wetzel said that Minnesota law doesn't allow a homeowner to use deadly force once a threat is neutralized. "The law doesn't permit you to execute somebody once a threat is gone," Wetzel told the Associated Press.

Smith dragged Schaeffel's body into the workshop area of his basement and took a seat while he waited for the other burglar to come down to the basement. After several minutes passed, Kifer came down the stairs and was also shot by Smith. Kifer, who was Schaeffel's cousin, likewise fell down the stairs after being hit by bullets from Smith's rifle. Again Smith continued using force past the point allowed under the law. Smith admitted to investigators that even though Kifer was "already hurting," he pulled out his .22-caliber revolver and shot her several times in the chest because she laughed. Smith went so far as to tell investigators, "If you're trying to shoot somebody and they laugh at you, you go again." Smith then dragged Kifer next to Schaeffel and, as she gasped for air, he put the tip of his revolver to her chin and fired a shot "up into the cranium." Smith told the police that was the shot that finished her off.

Smith waited almost a day before talking to anyone about the shooting. He then asked a neighbor if the neighbor knew of a good attorney. Instead of contacting an attorney, though, Smith proceeded to tell the neighbor to call the police, and he made damning statements to the investigators, which might prove to be his undoing if they get entered into evidence at the trial. Smith was arrested and has been formally charged with the murders of the two burglars, and bail was set at $2 million. Morrison County Attorney Brian Middendorf described Smith's actions as "appalling" and stated that "Mr. Smith intentionally killed two teenagers in his home in a manner that goes well beyond self-defense."

The outcry from the family members of the deceased was predictable, and the story gained national attention as people who are normally hostile to the private use of guns mined it for political gain. Still, Smith was not without his defenders. John Lang, a close personal friend of Smith's, was outraged that Smith was in jail. Lang told the Associated Press that "you have a right to defend your home. He's. [Smith] been through hell."

State Representative Tony Cornish, a former police officer who sponsored a bill last year that increased the legal protections for the use of deadly force in self-defense, said he believes Smith would have had a legitimate defense if he had just stopped shooting after his first shot. "After that first shot, when it turned into a grisly execution, he lost any hope he had of not being prosecuted. He lost all my support," Cornish told the Associated Press.

"... the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
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Title Annotation:EXERCISING THE RIGHT; Byron David Smith
Author:Krey, Patrick
Publication:The New American
Geographic Code:1U4MN
Date:Jan 7, 2013
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