(KMSP) - Byron Smith was convicted of first degree murder in the 2012 shooting deaths of a pair of teenagers who broke into his home in Little Falls, Minnesota. Since the verdict, Smith has not given up hope of winning on appeal.
Smith took his fight for a new trial to federal court and on Monday, he won a small victory from a U.S. district court judge.
Currently, the 70-year-old man is in prison at Oak Park Heights with a life sentence and no possibility of parole. But now, Smith has an opening - however slight - to take his appeals argument to the next level.
“It’s still going to be a very high hurdle to try to get convictions reversed,” said Criminal Defense Attorney Marsh Halberg, who is not involved in the case.
Smith shot and killed teenage cousins Nick Brady and Haile Kifer when they broke into his home over Thanksgiving weekend six years ago. Smith’s attorneys argued it was self-defense, a frightened homeowner fed up with recent break-ins at his house.
But prosecutors convinced a Morrison County jury that Smith laid a trap for the teenagers and audio recorded the cold-blooded murders.
The issue on appeal occurred right at the start of Smith’s trial.
The judge cleared the courtroom for several minutes to discuss with the parties a prior ruling about who could testify about the cousins’ criminal history and what those witnesses could say about Nick and Haile’s potential involvement in prior crimes at Smith’s house.
Smith’s legal team, led by Steve Meshbesher, has maintained all along that the court closure - no matter how short in duration - cost his client a fair and public trial, and thus violated his federal constitutional rights.
Marsh Halberg explained the overwhelming majority of such appeals are typically denied, so in that sense, it's a minor victory.
“The decision allows him to keep arguing about it. The court says it’s a debatable issue, which is kind of the threshold. Rather than saying we’re done, we’re done arguing it anymore, the federal court says you have the right to argue it at a higher court,” Halberg said.