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Homeowner found guilty of killing unarmed teenagers

| Tuesday, April 29, 2014, 8:45 p.m.

LITTLE FALLS, Minn. — A home-owner who shot and killed two unarmed teenagers during a break-in was quickly convicted of premeditated murder on Tuesday, with a jury taking about three hours to reject his claim of self-defense.

Byron Smith, a 65-year-old retiree who once set up security in American embassies for the State Department, shot Nick Brady, 17, and Haile Kifer, 18, multiple times after they broke into his home on Thanksgiving Day 2012.

Smith's attorney said he was fearful after previous burglaries. But prosecutors argued Smith laid in wait in his basement and intended to kill the teens, with a setup so elaborate that lead prosecutor Pete Orput compared it to a deer stand. Their key evidence was an audio recording that captured the killings in chilling detail, including Smith's taunts as the teens died.

The mothers of the teens, who were cousins, cried as the verdicts were read: Guilty on two counts each of first-degree and second-degree murder. Smith, who showed no emotion as he heard the verdicts, was immediately sentenced to life without parole. Defense attorney Steve Meshbesher said he would appeal.

Brady's grandmother, Bonnie Schaeffel, was among family members who addressed the court after the verdicts.

She said Smith seemed like a “sour, angry old recluse who felt he was above the law.” She added she was sorry his house was burglarized, but said Kifer and Brady should have had the chance to grow up and learn from their mistake.

The teens' killings stirred debate around the state and in Little Falls — a Mississippi River city of 8,000 about 100 miles northwest of Minneapolis — about how far a homeowner can go in responding to a threat. Minnesota law allows deadly force to prevent a felony from taking place in one's home or dwelling, but one's actions must be considered reasonable under the circumstances.

Prosecutors said Smith's plan was set in motion on the morning of the killings, after Smith saw a neighbor whom he believed responsible for prior burglaries. Prosecutors say Smith moved his truck to make it look like no one was home, and then settled into a basement chair with a book, energy bars, a bottle of water and two guns.

Smith set up a hand-held recorder on a bookshelf, which captured audio of the shootings, and had installed a surveillance system that recorded images of Brady trying to enter the house.

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