Would Bryan Kohberger’s murder trial stay in Latah County? What the experts say

Bryan Kohberger won’t be seen in court again until June. Even after that appearance, a preliminary hearing at the Latah County Courthouse, it will be longer before a potential jury trial may form.

The 28-year-old is accused of stabbing four University of Idaho students to death at an off-campus home in November.

At the hearing June 26, the prosecuting attorney is tasked with presenting evidence that shows there is probable cause to believe Kohberger committed the crimes.

Kohberger faces four counts of felony first-degree murder and a felony burglary charge in the Nov. 13 attack that took the lives of Madison Mogen, 21, of Coeur d’Alene; Kaylee Goncalves, 21, of Rathdrum; Xana Kernodle, 20, of Post Falls; and Ethan Chapin, 20, of Mount Vernon, Washington.

If he pleads not guilty, the court will set a trial date. A few critical questions loom, including whether the trial would be moved to a different county.

Either party, the prosecution or the defense, could file a motion for a change of venue. If granted, the change would transfer the trial to a county away from Moscow, the roughly 26,000-population college town in North Idaho that’s drawn unrelenting attention from national news outlets and true crime enthusiasts in the months since the four students’ deaths.

Public defender Anne Taylor speaks during a status hearing for Bryan Kohberger, who is accused of killing four University of Idaho students in November.

Why move the trial?

There are several arguments to be made for changing the venue, but chief among them is the effect of pretrial publicity on potential jurors, according to Fremont County Prosecuting Attorney Lindsey Blake.

In early 2021, Blake took over the prosecution of a high-profile criminal case against Lori Vallow Daybell and Chad Daybell, who are charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder in the deaths of two of Lori’s children and Chad Daybell’s first wife, Tammy Daybell.

Chad Daybell’s lawyer requested a change of venue for the trial, arguing that substantial media attention would affect the court’s ability to find a fair and unbiased jury in Fremont County in East Idaho. A judge granted the request, moving the trial to the Ada County Courthouse in Boise. While the case is still under Fremont County’s jurisdiction, the jurors will be from Ada County.

The decision to move a trial is up to the judge, Blake said. Most often, she added, it’s at the request of the defense, not the prosecution.

“Each case is decided on an individual basis,” Blake told the Idaho Statesman by phone. “But a lot of the time, they’re looking at pretrial publicity. They feel they could get a more impartial jury.”

The Idaho Supreme Court says a judge may change the location of a trial if there is reason to believe an impartial trial can’t be held in the county where the case is filed, or if the convenience of witnesses and the ends of justice would be promoted by the change.

The doors to a Latah County courtroom in Moscow, Idaho, where Bryan Kohberger made his initial appearances before District Court Judge Megan Marshall.

The doors to a Latah County courtroom in Moscow, Idaho, where Bryan Kohberger made his initial appearances before District Court Judge Megan Marshall.

Could an impartial jury be found in Moscow?

On Dec. 28, two days before Kohberger’s arrest, the Statesman interviewed Latah County Prosecuting Attorney Bill Thompson at his office in Moscow. When asked whether he thought an unbiased jury could be found in Latah County, should the case come to trial, he seemed optimistic.

“I don’t see why we wouldn’t, as long as there’s not irresponsible dissemination of information,” Thompson said.

At the time, few details about the investigation had been released, and the public was still unaware Kohberger had been identified as a suspect. But in the weeks leading up to his arrest, Moscow Police Chief James Fry did various interviews with the media that offered glimmers of hope.

As the prosecuting attorney, Thompson said he’s concerned with making sure the prosecution is done in a fair and legal manner. He said professional ethics rules restrict what he can release outside of court because he doesn’t want to create bias in the community.

“We have a legal obligation to not do anything to taint the potential jury pool, because when we come to a trial, we need to be able to select jurors who don’t have preconceived opinions of what occurred, jurors who can be fair and impartial and can listen to the evidence in court and make a decision based on the evidence,” he said. “It’s really important to protect the integrity of the criminal process.”

But it’s a balancing act. Thompson agreed the public has a right to know what’s going on.

Now, a sweeping nondissemination order, also known as a gag order, prevents attorneys, law enforcement agencies and others associated with the case from talking or writing about it.

Thompson and Kohberger’s court-appointed defense team, Kootenai County public defender Anne Taylor and chief deputy litigator Jay Weston Logsdon, filed a document Jan. 3 demanding the judge issue a gag order, writing that the restrictions it imposes would protect the “integrity of the case to be presented at trial.”

“This case involves matters that have received a great deal of publicity,” both parties wrote. “This court has both a constitutional duty and the inherent authority to ‘minimize the effects of prejudicial pretrial publicity’ and ‘to ensure the efficacious administration of justice.’ ”

Bryan Kohberger with his attorney, public defender Anne Taylor, at a hearing Jan. 5. hearing in Latah County District Court.

Bryan Kohberger with his attorney, public defender Anne Taylor, at a hearing Jan. 5. hearing in Latah County District Court.

Where else could the trial go?

Former Idaho Attorney General and Lt. Gov. David Leroy told the Statesman that every defendant in a criminal case in the U.S. is entitled to a trial by a jury of peers.

“Those peers are supposed to approach any jury service as unbiased and without opinions formed in advance of the case,” Leroy said. “Jurors must decide whether someone has been shown to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, solely by evidence that’s produced in the courtroom.”

That evidence can take different forms, including scientific tests and witness testimony. In the 19-page probable cause affidavit used to arrest Kohberger, authorities laid out how they employed DNA evidence, vehicle and cellphone records, and other surveillance to find their suspect.

The difference between Moscow residents and the rest of the state, Leroy said, is the proximity to the crimes.

Leroy said conversations among people in the community, along with the temptation for news crews to drive by the King Road home where the four students were killed, have been pervasive.

Leroy said Kohberger’s defense team would likely presume that finding a jury in Latah County without previous opinions of the case could be difficult. He said Lewiston in Nez Perce County, just 30 miles south of Moscow, could provide a potential change of venue. So could Coeur d’Alene in Kootenai County, about 85 miles north; or Boise in Ada County, about 300 miles south.

Three of the victims hail from Kootenai County.

Community responds to media scrutiny

Even with Kohberger’s next court appearance over four months away, the fatal stabbings still garner significant news coverage in Idaho and across the country.

In the days and weeks following the quadruple homicide, reporters flocked to the scene of the crime.

The university’s student newspaper, The Argonaut, wrote in an article about the news coverage Feb. 1 that “nobody could have anticipated the swarm of cameras and out-of-town reporters that converged” on U of I’s campus and throughout the town. The Argonaut also reported that students have been active about their discontent with all the attention on social media.

“In a very high-profile, high-publicity case such as this one, it’s going to very difficult to find anyone, anywhere in Idaho, that hasn’t heard something about the case,” Leroy said.

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