A retired State Department employee has been indicted on two charges of first-degree murder in the latest case involving “castle doctrine” claims. There is little dispute that the two teens, Nicholas Brady, 17, and Haile Kifer, 18, broke in the Minnesota home of Byron Smith, 64, on Thanksgiving Day. Indeed, Brady may have broken into the home twice before. However, Smith’s shooting the unarmed teens and his actions captured on his own videotaping system led to the charges.
Smith was an expert in setting up security systems for embassies and that expertise could prove his undoing at the criminal trial. His own camera system captured his taunting the teens. The tapes show Smith telling Smith “you’re dead” after shooting him and then taunting Kifer and calling her a “bitch” while repeatedly shooting her. He then allegedly dragged the bodies to his workshop and left them until the next day when he called the police. Police report that he told them that he fired “more shots than I needed to” and fired “a good clean finishing shot” into Kifer’s head as she was gasping for air.
That is a bad record to take to a jury. However, he does have the Minnesota Caste Doctrine law:
609.065 JUSTIFIABLE TAKING OF LIFE.
The intentional taking of the life of another is not authorized by section 609.06, except when necessary in resisting or preventing an offense which the actor reasonably believes exposes the actor or another to great bodily harm or death, or preventing the commission of a felony in the actor’s place of abode.
Notably, the law does not limit the use to a reasonable belief of a threat of great bodily harm or death but also “preventing the commission of a felony in the actor’s place of abode.” That would seem pretty sweeping. The teens were indeed in the progress of the commission of a felony. However, what does “necessary” mean if the teens were unarmed and Smith was armed?
Prosecutors say that Smith shot the teens multiple times as they walked down the stairs to his basement about 10 minutes apart. It will be difficult to prove that he clearly knew the teens were not unarmed unless the videotape shows the teens surrendering. Even under the common law, juries and judges would give a homeowner a considerable degree of deference. With a criminal charge, such uncertainty places directly into the question of reasonable doubt.
Notably, Minnesota’s Governor recently vetoed an expansion of the state’s Castle Doctrine law to extend its protections outside of the home to cars, motor homes, boats and even tents.
There was also an interesting increase in the charges. Smith was initially charged with second-degree murder but the grand jury required first-degree charges.
I have been a long critic of Castle Doctrine laws. The title refers to the old adage that “a man’s home is his castle,” which is not a common law doctrine of criminal law or torts but rather an aspirational statement. The Castle Doctrine is generally a reference to the modern trend of legislatively empowering homeowners to use lethal force solely on the basis of a home invasion.
Under the common law, there was not “fear of prosecution or civil action for acting in defense of themselves and others” so long as you acted in reasonable self-defense or even “reasonable mistaken self-defense.” In the case of Courvoisier v. Raymond, 23 Colo. 113 (1896), a man chased a group out of his home only to fire when a man approached him outside his home from the stone-throwing mob. It turned out to be a deputy sheriff but the court found that Courvoisier could rely on reasonable mistaken self-defense.
The common law has long offered ample protections even for reasonable mistakes. These laws are based on an urban legend that people are routinely prosecuted for defending their homes from intruders. The laws have produced perverse results as in the infamous case of Tom Horn in Texas. Yet, the popularity of these laws have spawned “Make My Day Better” laws that extend the privilege of lethal force to businesses and cars. Montana’s law had been invoked in workplace shootings. As with the Harper case, these cases raise the question of whether lethal force would have been used absent the law, which is criticized as enabling certain people in the use of force. In one case, a Texas man was acquitted after allegedly forcing teens to kneel before him before shooting one. The teens had stolen junk food in his trailer home.
This case raises many of these classic issues of where to draw the line in the use of lethal force. The law was written to allow the use of lethal force in response to felonies in the home. It could well come down to the meaning of “necessary.”