Smith case may define line between self defense and execution

There’s still a long way to go in the trial of Byron Smith, the Morrison County, Minn., man charged in the killing of two teenagers who broke into his home in November 2012.

The case had all the makings of a nationwide debate on the right of people to defend themselves in their own homes. It was tailor-made for the demagoguery that accompanies shootings like this. But for the most part, that hasn’t happened.

A jury has to decide where the line is between defending oneself and finishing someone off.

The tape Smith made himself and played in a Little Falls courtroom yesterday, as reported by the Pioneer Press, doesn’t leave a lot of doubt about what happened.

In the 15-minute recording played Tuesday in court, the jury heard glass shatter, followed by footsteps upstairs.

Brady then can be heard walking down the basement stairs. Smith pulls the trigger, and Brady lets out a cry of pain and falls.

“You’re dead,” Smith said in a stern voice.

Several minutes go by, and Smith can be heard walking around, breathing heavily and moving objects.

Footsteps are heard running up and down the stairs, which one witness Tuesday said is Smith.

Then, more footsteps sound upstairs, and Smith sits still in the basement. He falls silent.

Seconds tick by until Kifer’s footsteps are heard on the stairs.

Smith’s once rapid breaths turn heavy, uneasy.

“Nick?” she quietly calls out.

Gunfire. Kifer falls.

“Oh, sorry about that,” Smith tells the girl.

“Oh, my God,” she calls out and then screams.

“You’re dying, bitch,” Smith says.

A few seconds later, more movement.

“Bitch,” he says again.

Kifer makes a dull sound. One final shot, which Smith told authorities he fired under Kifer’s chin with a 22.-caliber handgun.

Smith never called the cops. A neighbor did the next day after Smith called to ask about getting an attorney.

After the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida, Minnesota lawmakers attempted to pass the “stand your ground” bill, that provided more protections for people defending themselves. But even if it had passed, Smith would likely still be in court.

Here’s the relevant section of that bill:

Subd. 3. Degree of force; retreat. An individual taking defensive action pursuant to subdivision 2 may use all force and means, including deadly force, that the individual in good faith believes is required to succeed in defense. The individual may meet force with superior force when the individual’s objective is defensive; the individual is not required to retreat; and the individual may continue defensive actions against an assailant until the danger has ended.

And therein lies the question facing a jury: Does the danger pass when burglars are no longer capable of standing up and harming you? Or does it end when they’re dead?

Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Russell Anderson answered that question in 1999, when the court created the “castle doctrine,” when it overturned the conviction of a man who shot a gang enforcer in his Apple Valley mobile home.

We emphasize that a person claiming defense of dwelling is still subject to strictures insuring the reasonableness of his or her behavior. Defense of dwelling and self-defense within the dwelling serve a defensive and not offensive purpose, and do not confer a license to kill or to inflict great bodily harm merely because the offense occurs within the home. It may be more reasonable for a person to advance towards or retreat from a danger within his or her home in different circumstances, and that decision should be left to the jury.

When faced with a defense of dwelling claim, the jury must determine (1) whether the killing was done to prevent the commission of a felony in the dwelling, (2) whether the defendant’s judgment as to the gravity of the situation was reasonable under the circumstances, and (3) whether the defendant’s election to defend his or her dwelling was such as a reasonable person would have made in light of the danger to be apprehended.

In hindsight, the line between self defense and execution seems clear in the calmness of a courtroom. But the jury has to decide whether Mr. Smith knew it in the darkness of a basement when two people were breaking in.

The answer could set the new standard for defining self defense in Minnesota.