The case to be made in the University of Idaho murders
A man is in custody for the Idaho college murders — but the devil will be in the details to nail down a conviction. Authorities in Pennsylvania arrested Bryan Christopher Kohhberger Friday morning for the November 13 murders of University of Idaho students Kaylee Goncalves, Madison Mogen, Ethan Chapman, and Xana Kernodle.
But it won’t be enough to say Kohhberger worked or went to school nearby, nor that he drove a white Hyundai that police have been looking for. Nor will it be enough for his DNA merely to be present at the house where the murders occurred. After all, the location was a reputed party house that arguably hundreds of people could have been to this past semester, including Kohhberger. Investigators will need to demonstrate a series of facts that tie in Kohhberger to these crimes, including these five elements:
1. Proximity — Was Kohhberger believed or known to be in the area during the timeframe of the murders? So far, news reports indicate that he was a Ph.D. student (in criminology) at the nearby University of Washington in Pullman this past semester, which is approximately 8 miles from the scene of the murders. While college records may state that Kohhberger was enrolled there, investigators will need to validate through witness statements and video footage that he was in attendance during the semester, especially during the time the murders occurred.
2. Cell Phone Location Data — If Kohhberger commonly carried a cell phone with him, historical cell site data may be essential in tracking the movements of that phone. Investigators would need to demonstrate that Kohhberger himself carried the phone, but if the movements of his phone match up with movements from his school and known local residence to the scene of the murders — and beyond to the location in Pennsylvania where he was arrested — the cell site data would be compelling evidence to point to Kohhberger.
3 Interview and Statements — Investigators will want to pin down Kohhberger’s whereabouts the night of the murders and may ask him if he had ever been to the location anytime previously. If he claims to have been there for, say, a social event or party, such a statement could place him at the crime scene, but it may also explain why his DNA might be found on site.
Investigators need to avoid theory tenacity and instead see what the accumulation of evidence builds toward. If Kohhberger claims he was at the house, investigators need to follow up more to inquire specifically where inside the house Kohhberger had gone, to describe those rooms — in order to bolster or refute any assertion he was there on some prior occasion.
4. DNA at Crime Scene(s) —The mere presence of Kohhberger’s DNA at the murder scene could be explained reasonably enough because it was a known party house. But the presence of his DNA would place him onsite. Then it would be left to an accumulation of evidence — including a verbal statement — to explain the innocence of his DNA there. But should his DNA be found in the multiple locations within the house — specifically, where the murders occurred — the evidence would more strongly imply involvement in those crimes, rather than an incidental presence sometime beforehand.
Investigators should look, too, for victim DNA in Kohhberger’s vehicle. Should any of the victims' DNA be found there, Kohhberger would have to reasonably explain its presence (perhaps as a ride-share operator or some social interaction). Otherwise, the presence of victim DNA in his vehicle would prove highly problematic for his innocence.
5. Vehicle Location Data — Some vehicles are equipped with emergency communication systems to alert emergency services in the event of a collision. Should Kohhberger’s vehicle have been equipped with such system, or if its media system utilized satellite radio, data could exist to be retrieved to track the vehicle’s movement.
Any one of these elements linking Kohhberger to the scene and to the victims could be attributed to coincidence or happenstance. Surely, someone owning a white Hyundai and going to school in the area that semester could have previously been to a keg party at the house. But the totality of multiple elements tying Kohhberger to the crime scene and the victims will be necessary to lead investigators beyond the probable cause asserted for an arrest warrant.
The devil lies in bolstering the details that inexplicably tie Kohhberger to the scene and the victims during the time the murders occurred. Moreover, evidence of the victims that can be linked to Kohhberger offsite to where authorities arrested him in Pennsylvania could be most damning. A man is in custody, but now evidence needs to amass beyond a reasonable doubt. Now the investigators need to dig into the details and make their case.
Jason James Barry is an award-winning essayist and journalist. He previously served as a police officer and as a DEA special agent. Follow his work on American Thinker, Great Pacific Review, and prattlon.com. Recently, Jason published a collection of essays, entitled A Season in Madness, a reflection of students during the pandemic school lockdowns. Find out more about Jason on his webpage, WriterJasonJames.com.
Image: Tony Webster via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.