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Opinion: Kohberger case gets stranger with odd no plea

Online sleuths are trying to figure out why Monroe County native Bryan Kohberger “stood silent” during his arraignment last week after being indicted by an Idaho grand jury in connection with the stabbing deaths of four University of Idaho students last November.

Kohberger did not enter a plea when asked by Judge John C. Judge how he pleaded. Because of this, Judge entered a “not guilty” plea on Kohberger’s behalf. He also issued a stern warning to the news media, saying they have done “irreparable harm” to Kohberger’s case that could affect his right to a fair trial.

Most had expected the 28-year-old Pleasant Valley High School and DeSales University graduate to plead “not guilty” on his own, so this little used device of “standing silent” came as a major head-scratcher.

Some speculated that it was an attention-getter used by Kohberger, who is pursuing a Ph.D degree in criminology at Washington State University at Pullman, Washington, about 10 miles west of Moscow, home of the University of Idaho.

Many long time area attorneys who have been or were in practice for decades said they have never encountered any defendant in their cases who chose to “stand silent” when asked to enter a plea. Among them was Malcolm Gross, partner in the Gross McGinley law firm with offices throughout the Lehigh Valley, who retired in 2021. “It sent me scouring the law books. I’ve heard of it, of course, but I have never been involved in a case where a defendant ‘stood silent,’ so I had to refresh my memory,” Gross said.

“Standing silent” can give a defendant several options down the road in case he wants to change his plea or change the nature of his defense. Other than that, most legal experts to whom I spoke do not see any particular upside for Kohberger in going this route.

Because Megan Marshall, the magistrate who earlier had jurisdiction, imposed a gag order on all of the major principals, it is very difficult to get official information about some of the inner workings of the case, specifically about the prosecution’s and defense’s strategies. The current judge said he would rule on a motion by The Associated Press to lift the gag order on June 9.

Kohberger’s trial date has been set for Oct. 2. The prosecution has six months from the date of the arraignment to decide whether to seek the death penalty. Because of the nature of the sensational case, which has captured international attention, there is still a possibility that the trial date could be postponed.

There is also a strong possibility that Kohberger’s attorney will seek a change of venue to another jurisdiction in Idaho because of the intense publicity the case has gotten and the difficulty in trying to seat an unprejudiced jury. Another device that could be used by the judge is a change of venire where jurors would be brought in from another jurisdiction in the state, but the trial would still be held in Moscow, Latah County.

Idaho in recent years has used lethal injection as the means of putting a convicted killer to death, but several months ago, the Idaho legislature passed and Gov. Brad Little signed a bill permitting death by firing squad. Because of this, Kohberger could become the first defendant to be executed in this way if he is convicted and sentenced to death.

Kohberger has been charged with the murders of Kaylee Goncalves, Madison Mogen, Xana Kernodle and Ethan Chapin, all of whom were awarded bachelor degrees posthumously at the recent University of Idaho commencement exercises in Moscow.

In addition to the murder indictments, the Latah County grand jury also handed up a true bill charging Kohberger with one count of burglary.

The Kohberger case was the subject of a second Dateline investigation on the NBC television network earlier this month. The two-hour program was dominated by speculation by criminology experts who have been following the case.

In addition, there were a few new disclosures, including the fact that Kohberger had ordered an online purchase of a knife and sheath not unlike the sheath that was found at the murder scene.

The Dateline program also documented the numerous times that Kohberger’s car had been seen on camera footage in the vicinity of the off-campus living quarters where the students were killed.

Some have wondered why the grand jury suddenly got the case when Kohberger had been scheduled to enter a plea on June 26. Most speculation centers around another student who was in the home and came face to face with the masked murder suspect the morning of the killings. By testifying before the grand jury in private, this key witness did not have to appear in public, which she was said to be terrified to do.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.