LITTLE FALLS, Minn. – The two Minnesota cousins killed by a man who claimed he was defending himself after they broke into his home were each shot multiple times, a medical examiner testified Thursday, and while the initial gunshots caused serious injury, they did not immediately incapacitate the teens.
Byron Smith, of Little Falls, is charged with first-degree premeditated murder in the deaths of 18-year-old Haile Kifer and 17-year-old Nick Brady on Thanksgiving Day 2012. Smith, 65, claims he was defending himself and feared for his life after several break-ins at his home. But prosecutors say he sat in his basement with guns, waiting for the teens to enter his house, then went too far when he continued to shoot them after they were no longer a threat.
The killings stunned Little Falls, a central Minnesota community of 8,000, and stirred debate about how far people can go to defend their homes. Under Minnesota law, a person may use deadly force to prevent a felony from taking place in one’s home or dwelling.
Jurors viewed autopsy photos Thursday that showed the teens’ injuries, as Smith sat still and stared at the photos projected on a screen. Dr. Kelly Mills, with the Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s Office, testified that Brady was shot three times, and Kifer had six gunshot wounds.
Mills said the final shot to Brady, which went through his right hand and into his right temple, was the “most immediately fatal.” She described it as a close-range shot, fired from between 6 inches and 3 feet away, that went through his skull and into his brain.
Brady was also shot in the abdomen and in the back of his left shoulder as he descended the stairs into Smith’s basement. Mills testified these first two gunshots caused serious internal injuries that would have been fatal had enough time passed but would not immediately have been incapacitating.
Mills testified that Kifer had six gunshot wounds, including two to the head at close range. She said the shot that killed Kifer, the fifth fired by Smith, was a close-range shot behind her left ear, striking her brainstem.
“This is a fatal shot,” Mills testified. According to the criminal complaint, Smith fired another shot after that, under Kifer’s chin, which he called a “finishing shot.”
On cross-examination, defense attorney Steven Meshbesher pointed out that after the initial shots, both Kifer and Brady would have been able to move and could have been perceived as threats. He said Brady could have grabbed a weapon if he had one. Both teens were unarmed.
Mills testified that Brady tested negative for alcohol and drugs. But Kifer had an ingredient from cough medicine in her system at a level that would have made her intoxicated. Mills said the drug, dextromethorphan, can cause hallucinations, disassociation and an out-of-body experience.
Kifer’s toxicology tests also showed the presence of a marijuana metabolite that Mills says had no hallucinogenic effects, Mills testified.
Prosecutors rested their case Thursday, and defense attorneys called their first witness, Morrison County Sheriff’s Deputy Jamie Luberts. Meshbesher questioned Luberts about recent burglaries on Smith’s properties.
Meshbesher said his client wrote a memo to sheriff’s officials on Oct. 29, asking authorities to investigate recent burglaries at his house and at an adjacent property he owns. Meshbesher raised questions about how authorities conducted the investigation and a lack of movement on Smith’s request.