Jeffrey L. Smith is now free after a magistrate dismissed murder charges against him, but authorities say they had good reasons to accuse him of killing Leo and Mary Downard of Ammon.
And they add the setback will not prevent them from solving the case and perhaps filing charges again against Smith or charging someone else.At the request of Smith's attorneys, Bonneville County Magistrate Linda Cook dismissed two counts of first-degree murder and one count of first-degree burglary against Smith Tuesday.
She made her decision after five days of testimony at a preliminary hearing to determine whether Smith, 26, Idaho Falls, would stand trial.
The Downards were found shot to death March 25 in their home. Police think they were killed the night of March 21 or the early morning of March 22.
"This is the strangest one I've ever been involved with," Cook said in comparing it with other homicide cases.
As Cook read her decision, a few gasps could be heard in the courtroom.
Defense attorney Stephen Hart said the prosecution failed to show substantial evidence his client killed the Downards.
"They have no evidence whatsoever," Hart said. "We're not talking substantial evidence. We're talking no evidence."
He contended the main problem with the prosecutors' case was the failure to connect Smith with the crime or the .22-caliber rifle they say is the murder weapon.
Witnesses testified Smith was at places other than the Downards' home from the time he power raked their lawn the afternoon of March 21 until the evening of March 22.
Hart also questioned a state firearms examiner's qualifications and conclusion that a gun owned by Smith's brother, Lanny, fired the five .22-caliber shell casings found near the Downards' bodies.
Despite criticism about the strength of their case, Deputy Bonneville County Prosecutor Sid Brown said after the hearing in April that authorities felt they had enough evidence to back up their charges.
As the investigation progressed, an expert reported the footprint near Mary Downard's body was more likely made by Smith's brother, Lanny, court records show.
The prosecution then had to send footprints from both men to a crime lab for more tests. Had the footprint been identified as Jeffrey Smith's in time for the preliminary hearing, the result would have been different, Brown said.Comment on this story
"We lost our footprint evidence," he said. "That really cut the rug out from under us."
The rifle belongs to Lanny Smith, according to the testimony of his father, Lynn. Also, Lanny Smith invoked his constitutional right against self-incrimination when he was ordered to testify.
Smith was released from Bonneville County Jail about an hour after Cook dismissed the charges.
If the evidence points toward either or both of the Smith brothers, charges may be filed against them, authorities said.