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Murder trial of Minnesota man who killed teens goes to jury

By Todd Melby

LITTLE FALLS, Minnesota (Reuters) - The murder trial of a central Minnesota man accused of fatally shooting two unarmed teenagers when they broke into his house was turned over to the jury on Tuesday, after an audio recording of the event made by the defendant was heard in court.

Byron Smith, 65, has never denied killing Haile Kifer, 18, and her cousin Nick Brady, 17, at his rural Little Falls, Minnesota, home on Thanksgiving Day in 2012, but said he feared for his life.

Smith trembled, held his head in his hands and wiped tears from his eyes when excerpts of the tapes he made were played in the courtroom.

"This is a serious but very simple case," prosecutor Pete Orput told jurors during closing arguments.

Orput said that Smith planned the shootings by moving his vehicle so intruders would think he wasn't home, activating an audio recorder and loading his weapons, making him guilty of first-degree premeditated murder. Jurors are also considering charges of second-degree murder.

The case helped fuel a national debate about how far people can go to protect themselves from bodily harm. It has divided Little Falls, a town of about 8,300 people located 100 miles north of Minneapolis.

On the day of the shootings, Smith read a novel while sitting in a chair in the basement of his 1960s-era home.

Smith later told police that after hearing an upstairs window shatter, he saw someone descending the steps. He shot that person -- later identified as Brady -- three times with a rifle and put Brady's body on a tarp. When a second person - later identified as Kifer -- walked down the stairs several minutes later, Smith shot her six times.

"Every time the defendant pulled the trigger he had the opportunity to consider," Orput said.

But defense attorney Steve Meshbesher told jurors that Smith, who lived alone, "was confused (and) scared" that day. Smith's home had been burglarized recently and guns had been stolen, he said.

Family and friends of Smith, Kifer and Brady were in the Morrison County courtroom on Tuesday. When an audio recording of Kifer's death was played, one person covered her ears and cried.

Meshbesher told jurors the audio recordings may be emotionally powerful, but are not proof of guilt.

"I'm not going to try and convince you that it's nice, but it's legal and it's not murder," Meshbesher said.

(Reporting by Todd Melby; Editing by David Bailey and Leslie Adler)

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