Bryan Kohberger defense, prosecution argue over whether grand jury indictment should stand

The judge overseeing the case of Bryan Kohberger, the man accused of murdering four University of Idaho students last year, on Thursday denied the defense’s push to dismiss the grand jury indictment based on a purported error in instruction to the jurors.

Judge John Judge of Idaho’s 2nd Judicial District in Latah County quickly ruled on the motion after a 40-minute afternoon hearing. Kohberger’s public defense team had argued that the standard of proof applied to grand juries in Idaho does not align with the language included in the state constitution or Idaho law, requiring the higher legal standard up to beyond a reasonable doubt.

Judge — along with the prosecution in a short oral response — said established precedent suggests otherwise.

“I appreciate the argument. I think it’s really creative and I appreciate the journey back through history,” Judge said in court Thursday. “I mean, what it comes down to for me is that I am constrained by what I believe is settled law in Idaho. I may be wrong, but this is certainly an issue that you would have to bring up with a higher court, like the Idaho Supreme Court, and I look forward to getting that.”

Just before Judge entered the courtroom, Kohberger walked in wearing a blue suit and striped gold-and-blue tie escorted by a sheriff’s deputy. He took a seat next to his lead public defender, Anne Taylor, and shared a brief smile with her before directing his eyes forward, where they stayed the majority of the hearing. The other members of his public defense team, Jay Logsdon and Elisa Massoth, sat nearby.

From the outset during oral argument, Logsdon acknowledged that overturning the indictment would be a tall order. But nevertheless he argued that the secretive grand jury process already is heavily stacked against defendants, and the lack of case law in Idaho left the door open that the burden on the prosecution in indictment proceedings should be greater than reasonable doubt.

“Plain language seems to support what we’re saying,” Logsdon told Judge. “I’m arguing that things everyone in the state is doing are wrong and — occasionally, rarely — they say, ‘No, no, that guy’s right.’ ”

Judge countered that probable cause has been the standard in Idaho for a long time, perhaps a century. Logsdon’s premise was novel, he said, but existing precedent did not allow him to make a different interpretation or “just change the law as a trial court.”

For the prosecution, Idaho Deputy Attorney General Jeff Nye spent roughly two minutes presenting the state’s side. He stated simply that the Idaho Supreme Court had already ruled on the issue in prior decisions.

Earlier Thursday, Judge also heard other defense arguments about several alleged legal flaws related to the grand jury indictment. It is unclear how or whether Judge ruled on those arguments because the hearing was held behind closed doors to protect sensitive information.

“You’re probably wondering why it was sealed compared to this part of the hearing, and that is because we were dealing with the procedures of the grand jury and a lot of details,” Judge told attendees. “The grand jury is secret, so that’s why it’s sealed, and, whether you like it or not, it’s baked into U.S. Constitution and Idaho Constitution.”

At the morning hearing, the defense contended that the indictment should be thrown out based on four other legal grounds: that the local grand jury was biased against Kohberger; and that prosecutors lacked sufficient evidence, used inadmissible evidence and committed misconduct in withholding evidence that would negate their client’s guilt. The hearing extended into the scheduled afternoon session, delaying its start by about 35 minutes.

How we got here

Kohberger, 28, is charged with stabbing to death the four U of I students at an off-campus home in November 2022. The victims were seniors Madison Mogen and Kaylee Goncalves, both 21; junior Xana Kernodle and freshman Ethan Chapin, both 20.

At the time, Kohberger was a graduate student of criminal justice and criminology at Washington State University. WSU is located in Pullman, Washington, about 9 miles west of Moscow.

Latah County Prosecutor Bill Thompson has already stated his intent to seek the death penalty for Kohberger if he is convicted by a jury.

In May, a Latah County grand jury indicted Kohberger on four counts of first-degree murder and one count of felony burglary. A retired judge from neighboring Nez Perce County presided over the three-day process, which canceled a preliminary hearing scheduled in June on the same charges for Kohberger.

By their nature, grand juries are an intentionally secret tool prosecutors have at their disposal to move a case to trial. Defendants, their attorneys and the public are not allowed to know about them, let alone attend.

Kohberger’s defense team submitted its first request to dismiss the indictment in July, alleging the error in the instructions provided to the grand jurors. In its place, they again sought a preliminary hearing for their client, where prosecutors would need to present evidence and testimony in an open forum to prove probable cause of Kohberger’s guilt to a judge. The hearing also would grant the defense a chance to cross-examine witnesses.

In August, the defense filed a second motion to dismiss the indictment, citing the other four legal grounds. The prosecution objected to those efforts to throw out the indictment. Judge set September hearings to listen to the arguments, but those were rescheduled to Thursday at the request of the defense on account of an undisclosed illness at that time.

Thursday’s hearings were the first time Kohberger has appeared in court in nearly two months. In late August, he waived his right to a speedy trial, which indefinitely postponed his capital murder trial, originally scheduled for the first week of this month. A hearing also was held to review whether to keep cameras in the courtroom in early September.

The Thursday hearings came less than three weeks before the one-year mark of the crime that sent shock waves throughout Idaho, and the nation. The quadruple homicide launched what developed into a nearly seven-week manhunt, ending with Kohberger’s late December arrest at his family’s home in eastern Pennsylvania.

Monday also marks 10 months since Kohberger was taken into custody. He made his initial court appearance in Pennsylvania on Jan. 3 and arrived the next day in Idaho to the Latah County Jail in Moscow, where he has remained since.

On Nov. 21, Kohberger will turn 29 years old in jail as he — and all those closely tracking the case — continue to await his eventual trial, which still has no scheduled date.