Trials of Bryan Kohberger vs. Lori Vallow: Similarities and differences to expect

The suspect in the stabbing deaths of four University of Idaho students opted Monday to “stand silent” to murder charges.
Published: May. 22, 2023 at 10:44 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- Monday was a big day in court for the man accused in the killing of the “Idaho 4″ last November. Bryan Kohberger is suspected of killing Kaylee Goncalves, Madison Mogen, Ethan Chapin and Xana Kernodle in their off-campus house at the University of Idaho. Some of Xana’s family still live here in the Valley. Kohberger officially entered a “not guilty” plea, and today, a judge set his trial for early October.

This comes on the heels of another high-profile murder case with ties to Idaho and Arizona — Lori Vallow. But these cases could play out very differently, according to an Arizona criminal defense attorney.

Ultimately it may come down to who the defendants are and their motives. We know Vallow’s motive came from a place of religious beliefs, zombies and the apocalypse, but we don’t know Kohberger’s alleged motive yet.

Vallow had the death penalty taken off the table, but that may not be the case for Kohberger. It’s easy to look at his Idaho case and think, will this go similarly to Vallow’s recent Idaho trial? Both involve multiple victims, and both have intense media coverage.

Vallow’s defense team used media scrutinization in part to get the death penalty off the table, and the judge granted that. Kohberger has immense media coverage, too, so could that be the same?

Arizona criminal defense attorney Russ Richelsoph said not so fast. “Ultimately in Lori Vallow’s case it was late discovery that caused the judge to discuss the notice of intent and take the death penalty off the table,” said Richelsoph. That means the defense did not have enough time to adequately review everything in discovery before going to trial, and that’s what the judge based that decision on.

Kohberger’s trial is set for October 2, just four months from now. However, Richelsoph said he doubts it will start that soon. “It would be unusual if it actually went to trial in October. I think a lot of us were surprised at how quickly Lori Vallow’s case went to trial, and I think it went to trial as quickly as it did because Ms. Vallow demanded her right to a speedy trial,” said Richelsoph.

And then, you have the evidence and how a jury views it. In Idaho, direct and circumstantial evidence should be weighted the same by a jury. In Kohberger’s case, there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence: phone records, pinged locations near the crime scene, and a digital footprint.

But what about Kohberger’s DNA on the knife sheath; is that direct evidence? Richelsoph said many would think yes, including possibly the jurors, but realistically he said it isn’t. “Is DNA direct evidence? I would say no. It’s circumstantial evidence. It means this person’s DNA was found in this place, it doesn’t necessarily mean the person committed the crime,” said Richelsoph.

Richelsoph said often, when a case has direct evidence, like reliable eyewitness testimony or video of a person clearly committing a crime, it doesn’t go to trial; usually, a plea deal is taken. He said the one exception to that: death penalty cases.

Motives may also play a role in how differently these trials play out. Richelsoph said there’s often a lot of tension behind the scenes with defendants in high-profile cases like this and their own defense attorneys.

Vallow’s attorney had to deal with her belief that killing her kids was coming from a motive of getting rid of zombies, and a religious apocalypse. With Kohberger, we don’t know his alleged motive or relationship with his attorney behind the scenes, and those defense attorneys aren’t allowed to talk publicly about the dynamic either.