- Associated Press - Thursday, September 3, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Attorneys for a Little Falls man convicted of killing two teenagers who broke into his home on Thanksgiving Day 2012 argued Thursday before the Minnesota Supreme Court that he deserves a new trial.

A jury convicted 67-year-old Byron Smith last year of first-degree premeditated murder in the fatal shootings of Haile Kifer, 18, and her 17-year-old cousin, Nick Brady. Smith was sentenced to life in prison with no parole.

At issue in the appeal is whether a court proceeding held on the trial’s opening day should have been open to the public, the St. Cloud Times reported. With only the attorneys and a court reporter present, the trial judge reminded the attorneys that he ruled against Smith’s wish to call friends of Brady to talk about his participation in previous burglaries.

“This is about justice … he did not get a fair trial,” defense attorney Steven Meshbesher told the justices. “The only way to fix it is to grant him a new trial.”

Prosecutors argued at the hourlong hearing that the closure had no impact and was meant to instruct attorneys on how they would conduct themselves. “This is not a courtroom closure. This is about a bench conference,” prosecutor Brent Wartner said.



But Justice David Stras said he was “troubled by the closure,” and Justice G. Barry Anderson asked how it wasn’t a violation of court rules governing closing hearings to the public.

Meshbesher told the justices that cumulative errors meant Smith did not get a fair trial, citing what he called prosecution errors during the grand jury proceedings, the court closure and the trial judge’s decisions that limited who could be called as defense witnesses.

The courtroom was packed Thursday with dozens of family, friends and supporters of both Smith, who remains in Stillwater state prison, and Kifer and Brady.

The appeal makes it difficult for Brady’s family to heal, his grandparents Steve and Bonnie Schaeffel said, but they wanted to attend the arguments to ensure the teens get justice.

“It’s the only thing we can do. We can’t get him a birthday card. This is our way to support him,” Bonnie Schaeffel said of her grandson.

But Smith’s supporters also are hoping he will be granted a new trial.

“I’m hopeful they let him go,” said Beverly Nouis, a Little Falls resident who has never met Smith but is advocating for him.

Minnesota law allows the use of deadly force in a home to prevent a felony, but it must be considered a reasonable response. Smith, a retired U.S. State Department employee, unsuccessfully used that defense during his trial. Smith’s attorney said his client’s home had been burglarized, and he was afraid.

Smith’s attorneys are asking the state Supreme Court to vacate Smith’s conviction and either dismiss his first-degree murder indictment or send his case back to district court for a new trial.

Prosecutors have argued the appeals claims are “an irrelevant sideshow” that “do no more than nibble around the edges” of the case.

The high court took the case under advisement. There is no deadline for a ruling.

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