Lawyers for the accused killer are arguing that a “fair and impartial jury cannot be found” in the area where four Idaho college students were killed in 2022. They want his capital murder trial moved to a different location so that jurors have not been exposed to more than a year of news coverage about the case.
The “extensive, inflammatory pretrial publicity, allegations” made about Bryan Kohberger, who stands accused of the killings, the “small size of the community, the salacious nature of the alleged crimes, and the severity of the charges” he faces, makes pulling an unbiased group of local people impossible, his lawyer Anne Taylor said in a two-page filing filed Tuesday and posted to the public docket Wednesday.
Kohberger is accused of stabbing to death four University of Idaho students in November 2022, a murder that has shattered the tranquil Idaho college town of Moscow and drew international attention.
Because the crimes hit home for so many who will one day be tasked with deciding Kohberger’s fate, his lawyer argues that simply expanding the jury pool within Latah County “will not do anything to overcome that pervasive prejudicial publicity” because the local population is too small and close-knit “to avoid the bias in the community” toward their client – and thus they need a jury from elsewhere, as well as moving the trial outside the area.
Prosecutors have indicated that they disagree, claiming that the “national, if not international attention” the case has acquired renders relocating it outside of the country pointless.
“It is not Moscow. It is not Latah County. It is everywhere. So, I don’t think a change of site will fix any of these difficulties,” Latah County Prosecutor Bill Thompson, who is heading the case against Kohberger, said at a pretrial hearing Friday when the topic was presented. “I have pals in this neighborhood who have been to Mexico. They say, ‘You’re from Moscow?’ They instantly want to discuss this case.”
“Just because it’s a horrific crime doesn’t mean a local juror who may have heard about it can’t be objective about the facts before them – or that they’ll be motivated to convict the wrong person,” said Matt Murphy, a former prosecutor in Orange County, California, and an ABC News legal contributor.
“They’re perhaps even more motivated to locate the proper person. When it comes to severe murder, getting it wrong means the genuine culprit may still pose a threat to their family and communities.
“The way the right is written is – a jury of your peers – and while it’s right to consider in high-profile cases like this, because it’s so high-profile, moving it to another Idaho county won’t necessarily help,” David Calviello, a former New Jersey prosecutor who is now a criminal defense attorney, told ABC. “While it may be difficult to get a fair and impartial pool that’s not a reason itself to kick it.”
Murphy stated that there is a “very high bar” to meet before this alteration may be made, and that significant attention to the case is insufficient.
“Successful motions to change venue are exceedingly rare,” Murphy said in a statement. “Essentially, the defense must show that they cannot locate 12 fair jurors in the existing jurisdiction, which is a difficult order. It is not enough that people have heard about the case; they must be fundamentally incapable of following the law and predisposed against the defendant.”
Thompson said in court on Friday that the local community provides a reason why the lawsuit “should” stay in Latah County, rather than grounds for relocating it.
“We owe it to Latah County and its residents to first try to seat a jury here. And don’t just say, ‘There’s been a lot of publicity.’ Thompson stated, “There has been a lot of publicity everywhere.”
The prosecutor’s team has already created a “fairly comprehensive” juror questionnaire for parties to examine, Thompson stated, “So that the court and counsel can assess the level of knowledge and the feelings of the potential jury pool.”
“We feel we can find an acceptable panel of jurors from Latah County. We have the tools to deal with it, as we discussed with your honor,” he told the judge.
Prosecutors say Kohberger, then a criminology Ph.D. student at nearby Washington State University, broke into an off-campus home and stabbed four University of Idaho students to death: Ethan Chapin, 20; Madison Mogen, 21; Xana Kernodle, 20; and Kaylee Goncalves, 21.
Following a six-week manhunt, authorities identified Kohberger as the perpetrator and arrested him in December 2022 at his family’s house in Pennsylvania. He was indicted in May on four charges of first-degree murder and one count of burglary. He refused to plead guilty during his arraignment, so the court entered a not-guilty plea for him.
If found guilty, Kohberger might be sentenced to death.
His attorneys have stated that their client was not in the residence where the crimes happened and was traveling around alone that night.
The trial date has not yet been established.
Prosecutors have been pushing for the trial to take place this summer, but Kohberger’s lawyer stated in court Friday that they did not feel the timeframe was “realistic in any way,” given the complexities of the case and the potentially severe penalties – especially if the trial remained local.
“If a trial were to take place in Latah County, we would recommend looking at summer 2025,” Taylor stated in court. “There are a lot of things that we have to still do.”