Few recent Minnesota cases have engendered such strong feelings on both sides as the Byron Smith murder trial. The case – and the jury’s guilty verdict – has prompted much debate about the legal limits to defending one’s property against those who may wish to do them harm.
Case Synopsis: What Happened?
On November 22, 2012, Haile Kifer, 18, and her cousin, Nicholas Brady, 17, broke into the home of Byron David Smith, 65, in Little Falls, Minnesota. Smith, armed with a Ruger Mini-14, shot the teens separately and minutes apart as they entered the basement where he was, later stating to police he was worried about them being armed. By Smith’s account to police, he shot Brady twice at the top of the basement stairs, and once in the face fatally after he fell to the bottom of the stairs. Minutes later when Kifer entered the basement, he shot her at the top of the stairs. Wounded, she fell down the stairs, and after Smith’s rifle jammed, he shot her multiple times in the chest with a .22-caliber revolver, dragged her across the floor to set her beside the body of her cousin, and then shot her fatally under the chin. Smith then waited until Friday to have a neighbor call police, saying that he did not want to bother law enforcement on Thanksgiving. Audio of the events was recorded by Smith’s security system.
Smith’s statements to police describe delivering killing shots to the heads of both victims after he had shot them on the stairs and they had fallen to the basement floor wounded. In his statement, Smith said that Kifer had let out a short laugh after she fell down the stairs, saying “If you’re trying to shoot somebody and they laugh at you, you go again.” In police interviews Smith acknowledged “firing more shots than I needed to” and that he fired “a good clean finishing shot” into Kifer’s head.
Smith was initially charged with two counts of second-degree murder. In April 2013, he was indicted on two counts of first degree murder. Bail was later set at $50,000 which Smith posted. On April 29, 2014, Byron David Smith was found guilty on two counts of first-degree murder with premeditation and on two counts of second-degree murder after three hours of jury deliberations. He was immediately sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Minnesota’s “Castle Law”
Minnesota Statute Section 609.06 sets forth the circumstances in which “reasonable force may be used upon or toward the person of another without the other’s consent.” Section 609.065 further specifies that “the intentional taking of the life of another is not authorized by Section 609.06 except when necessary in resisting or preventing an offense which the actor reasonably believes exposes the actor or another to great bodily harm or death, or preventing the commission of a felony in the actor’s place of abode. This statute is commonly referred to as a “castle law” – as in a person’s home is their castle.
In the Smith case, most legal experts agree that Byron Smith’s initial shots that wounded his assailants were justified under Section 609.065. However, it is the additional shots – particularly the “finishing shot”, as Smith described it, on Ms. Kifer, that went beyond the legal boundaries of the Castle Doctrine.
Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t – Civil Liability Arising from Property Owner’s Acts in Self-Defense
Assuming that Mr. Smith did not exceed his limits under Minnesota law, and that Kifer and Brady had survived their encounter with Mr. Smith on November 22, 2012, the logical question to ask is whether they would have any right to sue Mr. Smith for their injuries. Given their parents’ statements after the jury verdict that the two had so much ahead of them in life and who knows what they could accomplish – despite the fact that the two deceased were well on their way to establishing lengthy criminal records – we can assume that the families almost certainly would have brought a personal injury action against Mr. Smith.
There is precedent for a trespasser successfully suing a property owner for injuries sustained. In a famous Iowa case, Katko v. Briney, Edward Briney owned an old unoccupied farmhouse in Iowa. The property was boarded up, had “no trespass” signs around it, and had been unused and was in a deteriorating condition for several years. Briney was very upset with the constant burglaries and break-ins into his unoccupied farmhouse. To solve this issue, Briney mounted a 20-gauge spring-loaded shotgun in the farmhouse to fire when the north bedroom door was opened. The gun was aimed to shoot an intruder’s legs so as not to cause a mortal injury. Five days later, Marvin Katko went into the farmhouse with the intent of collecting some old bottles and dated fruit jars that Katko considered antiques. Upon entering the room, the trigger mechanism was tripped and the shotgun fired into Katko’s legs at point blank range. The gunshot wounds sustained by Katko were sufficiently severe for him to require hospitalization. Katko sued Briney after his release from hospital.
The Court entered judgment for Katko and awarded him $20,000.00 in actual damages and $10,000.00 in punitive damages. The Court ruled that using deadly force on intruders in an unoccupied property was not reasonable or justified. Briney would have been justified in defending himself with the shotgun if he had been home during the intrusion. The plaintiff’s status as a trespasser is irrelevant when assessing liability in this case. The case stands for the proposition that, though a landowner has no duty to make his property safe for trespassers, he may not set deadly traps against them, holding that “the law has always placed a higher value upon human safety than upon mere rights in property.”
An interesting sidenote to the actual decision is Mr. Briney’s response years after the case was decided as to what he’d do differently about the situation. His response? “I’d have aimed the gun a few feet higher.”
Closer to the facts of the Smith case is a 2012 incident in California where 90 year old Jay Leone was shot in the jaw during a burglary. Leone, who happened to collect World War II era guns, managed to retrieve one of the guns and shoot back at his attacker – a meth addict named Samuel Cutrufelli, and shot him three times.
Cutrufelli, of course, sued Leone for injuring him.
The Byron Smith case will be discussed for years. The issue of defending one’s home is an emotional one, and as the Smith case demonstrates, there is a fine line as to what is or is not allowed when it comes to self-defense within your home.