If convicted, Smith faces a mandatory penalty of life in prison without parole.
A central Minnesota man accused of killing two unarmed teenagers, shooting them multiple times as they tried to break into his home, has been indicted on first-degree murder charges, prosecutors announced Thursday.
A Morrison County grand jury indicted Byron Smith, 64, on Wednesday on two counts of first-degree murder with premeditation in the Nov. 22 deaths of 17-year-old Nick Brady and 18-year-old Haile Kifer. Initially, Smith was charged with two counts of second-degree murder.
The new charges, issued under seal Wednesday, were announced after a Thursday court appearance. In order to bring someone to trial for first-degree murder in Minnesota, a grand jury indictment must be issued. If convicted, Smith faces a mandatory penalty of life in prison without parole.
"We look forward to proving this case ... and bringing justice to these two high school students whose lives were so violently and prematurely ended," Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said in a statement. Orput is handling the case because Morrison County prosecutors cited a conflict of interest.
One of Smith's attorneys, Adam Johnson, said Smith was acting in self-defense and was defending his dwelling, in rural Little Falls. Under Minnesota law, a person may use deadly force to prevent a felony from taking place in one's home or dwelling.
According to a criminal complaint, Smith, a retired U.S. State Department employee, told authorities he feared the teens had a weapon when they entered his home on Thanksgiving Day and acknowledged firing "more shots than I needed to." He also told investigators he fired "a good clean finishing shot" into Kifer's head as she was gasping for air, the complaint said.
Prosecutors have said an audio recording Smith made of the shootings includes him telling a wounded Kifer "you're dying," before firing the final shot. Court documents show his security system also made a video recording of the teens breaking in.
Authorities weren't notified of the killings until the following day when Smith asked a neighbor for a good lawyer and later asked the neighbor to call police. When police showed up, the criminal complaint said, Smith told the officers of the break-in and shooting and was arrested.
Defense attorneys have said Smith's property had been burglarized before and that he was scared.
Court documents show Brady was involved in at least two of the prior burglaries at Smith's property. Brady and Kifer, who were cousins, also have been linked to another burglary that happened the day before they were killed. In that case, six bottles of prescription drugs were stolen and found in a car linked to them.
The case stirred up strong emotions in Little Falls, a central Minnesota town of about 8,000 people. Some believed Smith went too far by repeatedly shooting the unarmed teens, but others said he was within his rights to protect his home.
During Thursday's court appearance, Orput asked that Smith's bail be set at $2 million, given the nature of the offense. Judge Doug Anderson denied that request, and kept bail at $50,000, with conditions. Smith posted that $50,000 bail in December and has been free since then.
Orput said he'll ask to have the lesser second-degree charges against Smith dismissed as the case goes forward.