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Suspect of University of Idaho Student Murders Remains Silent in Court

Murder suspect Bryan Kohberger before court
By A.J. Firstman and Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

You may remember the tragic news from last November. Four University of Idaho students—Ethan Chapin, Madison Mogen, Xana Kernodle, and Kaylee Goncalves—were murdered. It happened around 4 AM in the victims' off-campus house. One of the victim's roommates reported hearing crying, then seeing a man dressed entirely in black leave a bedroom and exit the house.

Who was that man? He is suspected to be a Washington State University criminology student named Bryan Kohberger, who was soon arrested and charged with murder and burglary.

There was initially some hubbub with the lawyers involved; the suspect's attorney was attempting to also represent one of the victims. We covered that conflict of interest case, which you can read here. After the lawyer withdrew from representing the victim, trial proceedings got underway.

And now, Kohberger has entered a plea of "nut guilty"—well, sort of. Let's talk about the case and his prospects.

Background on the Case

First, a recap of the investigation.

Authorities were on the killer's trail before the sun rose, canvassing the surrounding area for clues, eyewitnesses, and any video footage that had been captured in the hours before the brutal crime. One thing stood out: a white sedan traveling back and forth outside the victim's home at around 3:30 AM. The vehicle, identified as a Hyundai Elantra, sped away from the area at about 4:20 AM. It was a solid lead, but it wasn't enough.

The next big break in the case was found at a different college campus: Washington State University, about 10 miles and a state border away from Moscow, Idaho, where the University of Idaho is located. Security footage showed a white sedan leaving the campus at around 3 AM in the direction of Moscow. The same sedan was captured on film returning across the state line at about 5:30 AM.

The sedan was registered to one Bryan Kohberger, a PhD student in Washington State University's criminal justice program. Police had Kohberger's phone number on file thanks to a routine traffic stop a few months prior, but investigations found that his phone hadn't pinged any of the cell towers in the area of the victims' house or the surrounding area on the morning of the killings. It had, however, pinged a cell tower in the nearby town of Pullman at 2:47 AM that morning, then began pinging towers again at 4:48 AM along highways south of Moscow, then across the border in Washington state.

Investigators concluded that Kohberger had turned off his phone for those two hours for exactly one reason: to throw the authorities off his trail. Further investigation also revealed a series of 12 pings in the immediate vicinity of the house where the killings were committed, then once more in the same area about five hours after the killings occurred.

As compelling as this may be, the real break in the case came from DNA recovered from a tan leather knife found in a bed near one of the victims. Investigators tested the DNA against a sample of Kohberger's father's DNA collected outside the Kohberger family home. The results were conclusive. Kohberger was arrested three days after the match was confirmed.

Trial Stalled by Silent Defendant

Kohberger was arrested and charged with four counts of first-degree murder and felony burglary. He was completely silent during his arraignment, refusing even to enter a not guilty plea on his own behalf. Ultimately, the judge was forced to file a plea of not guilty on Kohberger's behalf according to relevant procedural rules.

Notably, Kohberger's attorney did not waive his client's rights to a speedy trial, which is required under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and under Article 1, Section 13 of the Idaho State Constitution. The Idaho legislature created a rule saying that the defendant must be brought to trial within six months. Otherwise the court must dismiss the case, unless "good cause" can be shown for doing otherwise. 

Why was Kohberger silent? Eve Brensike Primus, a professor of criminal procedure and evidence at the University of Michigan Law School and accomplished public defender, has some thoughts. One explanation, she says, may be that the defendant simply didn't want to plead out loud—in which case, his lawyer could still move the case forward just as if his client had pleaded "not guilty."

In other situations, Professor Primus commented that lawyers recommend their client to stay silent when they expect to argue that the client is not competent to stand trial or is not guilty by reason of insanity. Although Idaho doesn't allow a robust "insanity plea," it does allow evidence of mental illness or other factors that would prevent the defendant from having the correct mens rea​ (mental state) necessary for a murder (such as "malice aforethought").

But Professor Primus doesn't think that Kohberger's refusal to enter a plea at this point is likely to have a significant impact on the case. "Practically, there is no difference in effect, she said, "but if there are mental health issues, there might be reasons why you might not want your client to speak in court."

Kohberger's attorneys may be hoping the time limit will lapse, which may be an easy out for their client. Or maybe they just need to buy more time to develop a legal defense under the theory that someone else was the killer. Their other option is to argue that the prosecutor's case was too hurried and didn't follow proper procedure. Whatever they opt for, we'll be finding out soon, as the speedy trial clock ticks. 

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