The man charged with the murders of four University of Idaho students in November faces a veritable mountain of evidence against him, according to the police. But at least one prominent defense attorney says that’s only one side of the story.
When the probable cause affidavit for the arrest of Bryan Kohberger was unsealed on Jan. 5, legal experts told Law&Crime that they believe it contained several “bad facts” for the defendant, including DNA evidence linking him to the grisly scene.
But attorney Alan Dershowitz, who was part of OJ Simpson’s “dream team,” notes that the affidavit presents only the prosecution’s account of the events.
In an extended interview with Law&Crime’s Sidebar podcast, Dershowitz broke down the affidavit connecting arrested suspect Bryan Kohberger to the Nov. 13 fatal stabbings of four University of Idaho students — and shared his top defenses of the alleged quadruple murderer.
“The document narrows in on Kohberger, so the defense’s first step should be to begin developing their own evidence,” Dershowitz explained. “You always assume your client is guilty, and then you work back from there.”
“I’m going to surprise people when I say that a good criminal defense lawyer always starts with a presumption of guilt, not a presumption of innocence,” Dershowitz continued. “If you assume your client is innocent, you’ll make mistakes. You’ll allow searches. You will allow him to speak to the police. Then you always keep in mind the possibility of a plea bargain. This is difficult in a case like this where there were so many deaths and so brutal that the lawyers, whoever they are, really have their work cut out for them.”
The affidavit listed evidence like cell phone records and the suspected car’s proximity to the victims’ house, which Dershowitz calls “circumstantial evidence.”
“You’re looking to try to explain away the physical, indisputable evidence in a way that presents the possibility of innocence or at least reasonable doubt,” Dershowitz said.
This, Dershowitz suggests, could be done by putting all other parties on the stand.
“Often putting the police on trial, putting the prosecution on trial and deflecting attention away from the defendant toward other people can be an approach that’s worth pursuing as well,” Dershowitz explained.
Kohberger also has to be questioned, as he’s “the most important witness,” Dershowitz said. He may have a reason why his cell phone was off, or explain that he frequents that area of Moscow, Idaho, which is not unreasonable given that he lives about 10 miles away.
“In the end, it may be that he had a relationship,” Dershowitz continued. “We have no real evidence of this with any of the alleged victims or their friends.”
“So what you’re looking for is possible innocent explanations, or at least explanations that create a reasonable doubt,” he added.
Kohberger is charged with the stabbing deaths of Ethan Chapin, 20; Xana Kernodle, 20; Kaylee Goncalves, 21; and Madison Mogen, 21. The University of Idaho students were stabbed to death on the second and third floors of a house near campus in Moscow. Kohberger, who was arrested on Dec. 30 in Pennsylvania, was a Ph.D. student of criminology at Washington State University and lived in nearby Pullman, about 10 miles away.
The affidavit noted that Kohberger’s DNA was found on a knife sheath left beside one of the victims, which Dershowitz said seems like “very damning evidence” — but not impossible to challenge or dismiss.
“I won a case some years ago that seemed like it was open and shut and we found out the lab had made mistake after mistake after mistake and our client was acquitted,” Dershowitz said.
He explained that we’ll have to wait until the trial to learn the admissible evidence, the defenses, corroborating witnesses, or Kohberger’s testimony, if he decides to take the stand.
“We’re a long way away from being able to evaluate the likely outcome,” Dershowitz continued.
However, based on the affidavit, he has his own inkling.
“The likely outcome does, at this point in time, point to probable guilt,” he said. “And the American tradition of every defendant, particularly those who are most unpopular, deserve a zealous defense. So this man should get a zealous defense. That doesn’t guarantee an acquittal or even a hung jury. All he’s entitled to is a zealous defense, not a verdict.”
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