By Terry Lehrke, News Editor
The murder trial for Byron Smith of Little Falls will begin Monday, at 9 a.m., in Morrison County District Court.
Smith, now 65, was indicted on first-degree premeditated murder charges in the shooting deaths of Haile Kifer, 18, and Nicholas Brady, 17, Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 22, 2012.
The defense alleges Smith acted in self-defense and in defense of his dwelling. Smith, who was home at the time, said he shot the two after they broke into his home.
The prosecution asserts that Smith went beyond the limits of the law in shooting the teens multiple times after they were incapacitated. Law enforcement was not called until the following day.
Smith, originally charged with two counts of second-degree murder, was indicted by a grand jury on the first-degree premeditated murder charges in April 2013. Smith pleaded not guilty.
The first morning of jury selection, more than 100 potential jurors filled out a questionnaire with 57 questions, ranging from their names to whether they had ever been involved in a crime, been the victim of a crime or owned guns.
As the jury selection began, jurors were brought into the courtroom in groups and sworn in. The plan was to question 20 jurors the first day, and 30 each day thereafter until a jury had been selected. Jurors not expected to be questioned the first day, were told which day they should return for an interview. The others returned to the room designated as their waiting room.
Judge Douglas Anderson cautioned potential jurors that the defendant was presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
“The fact that he was indicted should not be viewed as evidence of guilt,” Anderson said.
The judge instructed each group of potential jurors that it is up to the state to prove guilt.
“No finding of guilt can be made unless a juror feels the state has met its burden of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said.
The defense does not have to prove innocence, Anderson said. The presumption of innocence stays with the defendant, he said.
As jurors were questioned one by one, the judge instructed each to put aside anything they had heard, read or seen about the case. He said an impartial juror must also put aside any leanings they had in the case, and base their decisions strictly on the evidence and testimony provided during the trial.
Anderson first spoke to each juror, clarifying information on their questionnaire. Defense Attorney Steven Meshbesher was next to interview each potential juror. Prosecutor Peter Orput was last to ask questions.
Meshbesher asked most of the questions. He pointed to his client, asking potential jurors whether they were able to presume Smith was innocent.
He also asked them whether they could listen to all of the evidence and testimony, determine which was truthful, and, in deliberation with the other jurors, stand up for what they determined to be true and apply the law as set forth by the judge.
Meshbesher was forthcoming in telling potential jurors photos of the dead teens would be difficult to see and the audio recorded the day of the shootings would be difficult to hear.
Orput, after having heard answers to the questions posed by Anderson and Meshbesher, most often asked whether it was all right with the potential juror if he didn’t have any questions and whether they would hold that against him. None did.
After questioning, the defense and prosecution were asked to indicate on paper whether the juror would be selected. Anderson told each whether they were selected or excused, without indicating why the decision was made.
The defense was able to dismiss 15 jurors; the state nine.
Interviews of potential jurors started Monday morning and by Wednesday afternoon, after nearly 40 interviews, seven men and seven women had been selected, which included 12 jurors and two alternates.
Several potential jurors were excused without questioning, due to some type of relationship with the deceased.
The judge instructed each juror as they were chosen, not to read, listen to or view anything about the case. They were also instructed not to speak to the media and to avoid talking about the case with others.
Meshbesher is being assisted by attorney Adam Johnson.
Orput, the Washington County Attorney, is being assisted by Brent Wartner. The two are acting as Morrison County assistant attorneys.