LATAH COUNTY, Idaho — A grand jury has indicted a man who was already charged in the stabbing deaths of four University of Idaho students, allowing prosecutors to skip a planned week-long preliminary hearing that was set for late June.
Bryan Kohberger was arrested late last year and charged with burglary and four counts of first-degree murder in connection with the November 13, 2022, killings of Xana Kernodle, Ethan Chapin, Madison Mogen, and Kaylee Goncalves at a rental home near the University of Idaho campus. At the time, Kohberger was a graduate student studying criminology at nearby Washington State University, and the killings left the close-knit communities of Moscow, Idaho, and Pullman, Washington, reeling.
A preliminary hearing — where prosecutors must show a judge that there is enough evidence to justify moving forward with felony charges — had been scheduled to begin June 26. But on Tuesday, a grand jury indicted Kohberger on the same criminal charges, effectively rerouting the case directly to the state’s felony court level and allowing prosecutors to skip the preliminary hearing process.
Wednesday's indictment means that the preliminary hearing scheduled for June 26 in Idaho is now canceled, and Bryan Kohberger will instead be arraigned on the grand jury's indictment on Monday.
We talked to Monroe County-based defense attorney Brett Reigel about why Idaho prosecutors made the move to take the case to a grand jury instead of going through a preliminary hearing.
"There's an old joke that goes that in a grand jury, the prosecutor ought to be able to get the grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. And what the joke essentially means is that a grand jury is not a bipartisan proceeding. It's not that both parties get a shot and a say. It is a one-sided process. so, if there's good evidence and questionable evidence, they just don't share that part," Reigel said.
Reigel says any potential weaknesses in the prosecution's case may not be the main motivator here, but rather the ability to keep evidence and witnesses in the case a secret. That information would have been on display in the preliminary hearing that had been scheduled for late June.
Plus, Kohberger's defense can't ask questions of any witnesses
"The only questions that get asked in a grand jury proceeding are the questions that the prosecution wants asking," Reigel explained. "There isn't that opportunity for the defense to ask the questions that are important to it."
Court documents have already detailed much of the investigation that prosecutors say ties Kohberger to the slayings. A white sedan allegedly matching one owned by Kohberger was caught on surveillance footage repeatedly cruising past the rental home on a dead-end street around the time of the killings. Police say traces of DNA found on a knife sheath inside the home where the students were killed matches that of the 28-year-old Kohberger. Investigators also contend that a cellphone belonging to Kohberger was near the victims’ home on a dozen occasions prior to the killings, though it was apparently turned off around the time of the early-morning attack.
Kohberger was arrested on December 30, 2022, at his parents’ home in Chestnuthill Township, Monroe County, and law enforcement officials seized dark clothing, medical gloves, a flashlight, and other items from the home, according to court documents. In Pullman, investigators seized stained bedding, strands of what appeared to be hair, and a single glove from his WSU campus apartment, according to another search warrant.
Still, the unsealed court documents do not appear to suggest a motive, nor whether the killer had specifically targeted any of the victims. It’s also not clear if prosecutors believe Kohberger had met any of the victims before the night they died.
Kernodle, Chapin, Mogen, and Goncalves were friends and members of the university’s Greek system, and the three women lived together in the rental home just across the street from campus. Chapin — Kernodle’s boyfriend — was there visiting on the night of the attack. The killings left many of their classmates and residents of Moscow reeling with grief and fear.
Under Idaho law, felony criminal charges generally take one of two routes in court. Most often, a prosecutor files charges, and the defendant is brought before a magistrate court to hear them and be advised of their rights. Then the prosecutor must convince the magistrate judge that there is enough evidence against the defendant to justify moving the case forward to the district court level. If the magistrate judge doesn't believe there is enough evidence, the case can be dismissed or reduced to less serious charges.
The other route is less-used in Idaho. It involves the prosecutor presenting the evidence to a grand jury — which meets in secret and without a judge present. The grand jury then decides if the defendant should be charged and exactly which charges the defendant should face. If the grand jury decides it is warranted, they indict the defendant on charges, and the case goes directly to district court.
It's unlikely that the public will find out exactly what happened in the grand jury proceedings for Kohberger. State law doesn't allow anyone to be present except those directly involved in the grand jury process, such as the jurors, the prosecuting attorney, and any witnesses.
Even once the grand jury is completed, the jurors aren't allowed to talk about what was said and done unless they are ordered to do so by the court. Any recordings or records made of the proceedings are sealed, and only a district judge can share them with a defendant or the attorneys involved in the case.