(MOSCOW, Idaho) — Arguing that a “fair and impartial jury cannot be found” in the area where four Idaho college students were killed in 2022, lawyers for the accused killer are asking that his capital murder trial be moved to a different location so it would be heard by jurors who 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, posted to the public docket Wednesday.
Kohberger is charged with stabbing to death four University of Idaho students in November 2022 — a crime that has rocked the quiet Idaho college hamlet of Moscow and garnered international attention.
Because the crimes hit home for so many who might one day be tasked with deciding Kohberger’s fate, his lawyer argues simply enlarging the jury pool within Latah County “will not do anything to overcome that pervasive prejudicial publicity” since the local population is too small and close-knit “to avoid the bias in the community” toward their client — and so they need a jury from elsewhere, as well as moving the trial outside the area.
Prosecutors have signaled they do not agree — that the “national, if not international attention” the case has received makes moving it out of the county futile.
“It’s not Moscow. It’s not Latah County. It’s everywhere. So, I don’t think that a change of venue is going to solve any of these problems,” Latah County Prosecutor Bill Thompson, leading the case against Kohberger, said at a pretrial hearing Friday when the issue was raised. “I have people, friends in this community who have traveled to Mexico. And they say, ‘You’re from Moscow?’ And immediately, they want to talk about this case.”
“Just because it’s a horrific crime doesn’t mean a local juror who may have heard about it can’t be fair-minded about the facts before them – or that they’re going to 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 arguably all the more motivated to find the right person. When you’re talking about brutal murder – getting it wrong means the real killer may still be a danger to their families and their neighborhoods.”
“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, former New Jersey prosecutor who is now a criminal defense attorney, told ABC News. “While it may be difficult to get a fair and impartial pool that’s not a reason itself to kick it.”
There’s a “very high bar” to clear for this change to be granted, Murphy said — and extensive attention to the case is not enough.
“Successful motions to change venue are exceedingly rare,” Murphy said. “Essentially, the defense has to establish that they cannot find 12 fair jurors in the current jurisdiction, which is a tall order. It’s not just that people have heard about the case, they must be fundamentally unable to follow the law and biased towards the defendant.”
In court on Friday, Thompson argued the local community offers a reason they “should” keep the case in Latah County — rather than grounds for moving it.
“We at least owe Latah County, the people of Latah County, the attempt to seat a jury here first. And not just rely on, ‘There’s been a lot of publicity.’ There’s been a lot of publicity everywhere,” Thompson said.
The prosecutor’s team has already drafted a “fairly comprehensive” juror questionnaire for parties’ review, Thompson said, “So that the court and counsel can assess the level of knowledge and the feelings of the potential jury pool.”
“We believe that we can select an appropriate panel of jurors from Latah County. We have the tools to work with that, that we’ve discussed with your honor,” he told the judge.
Prosecutors allege that in the early morning hours of Nov. 13, 2022, 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.
After a six-week hunt, police zeroed in on Kohberger as the suspect, arresting him in December 2022 at his family’s home in Pennsylvania. He was indicted in May and charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of burglary. At his arraignment, he declined to offer a plea, so the judge entered a not-guilty plea on his behalf.
Kohberger could face the death penalty if convicted.
His lawyers have said their client wasn’t in the home where the homicides occurred and was driving around alone that night.
A trial date has not yet been set.
Prosecutors have been pushing to hold the trial this summer but in court Friday, Kohberger’s lawyer said they did not believe that timeline was “realistic in any way,” given the complexity of the case and the weighty potential sentence — especially if the trial remains local.
“If a trial were to happen in Latah County, we would suggest looking at summer 2025,” Taylor said in court. “There are a lot of things that we have to still do.”
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