University of Idaho students return after suspect’s arrest

Nearly two months after four University of Idaho students were killed near campus — and two weeks after a suspect was arrested and charged with the crime — the picturesque school grounds are starting to feel a little closer to normal.

On Wednesday, the first day of classes after winter break, students were once again striding across the university’s frosty sidewalks and crowding the food court at the center of campus.

There’s a general feeling of relief in the air, said university spokesperson Jodi Walker.

"The students are back and enrollments are looking good," Walker said Wednesday, the first day of classes after the winter break. "I think everybody’s happy to be back under the circumstances. They’re relieved that an arrest has been made, and ready to focus on the semester."

The Nov. 13 stabbing deaths of Madison Mogen, Kaylee Goncalves, Xana Kernodle and Ethan Chapin left the rural community in Moscow, Idaho stricken with grief and fear, prompting nearly half of the university’s students to leave town for the perceived safety of online courses.

Weeks went by without a named suspect and few details released, but on Dec. 30 a 28-year-old doctoral student from Washington State University — located just 10 miles away from the University of Idaho — was arrested at his parents’ home in eastern Pennsylvania. Bryan Kohberger was extradited to Idaho last week, and will appear in court Thursday, when a magistrate judge will discuss scheduling with his attorney and the prosecutor.

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It’s too early to tell exactly how many students decided to return to in-person classes, Walker said. Those numbers are tallied in about two weeks to give students time for any last-minute schedule changes.

Statistics Professor Christopher Williams said enrollment in his small 400-level course on statistics programming has increased by 500% since the arrest. He said more students could sign up before the 10-day enrollment window closes.

"For over a month or two, it sat at just one person only in the course, and I was worried it would be canceled," Williams said. "It’s gone up to six now, which may mean that some of those people have just decided to come back. I get a sense that people are arriving here and looking at their schedules to figure out what they will take."

When Williams stopped by the student union building to grab some lunch from the food court, it was busier than it had been for weeks, he said.

"It looked a fair amount more crowded than I’ve seen it, especially toward the end of last semester," Williams said.

Students will get the chance to sign up for a series of extracurricular self-defense classes starting today, said Walker, as well as various violence prevention and safety planning programs. There’s still additional security on campus, as well as ongoing counseling and other support services for students, she said.

But it feels like the students have rallied and are determined to succeed despite the horrific circumstances of the last semester, Walker said, bolstered by news of the arrest.

"It definitely doesn’t diminish what happened, but we are figuring out a path forward," she said. "There’s definitely still grief and confusion and frustration and anger, and all the emotions that come with that. It really just has increased their tenacity and resilience, and they seem really eager to get back at it and show that they are indeed Vandals."

The Latah County Jail, where Kohberger is being held without bond, is about a 20-minute walk from campus. Kohberger has not yet had the opportunity to enter a plea, and a magistrate judge has issued a gag order barring the attorneys and any agencies involved from talking about the case.

On Thursday he is expected to appear at a status hearing, where the judge will have a chance to check in with the attorneys and iron out any logistical issues.

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Sometimes decisions will be made at status conferences that change the trajectory of the case — for instance, a defendant could waive their right to a speedy trial or agree to skip the preliminary hearing — but more often the conferences are about things like agreeing on future court dates, discussing how many days each side will need to present testimony, or making sure both sides have access to any evidence they need.

The next major court appearance could be a preliminary hearing, when Prosecutor Bill Thompson will be expected to show the magistrate judge that he has enough evidence to justify moving forward with the felony charges. If the magistrate judge agrees, the case will be "bound over" into Idaho’s 2nd District Court, and a district judge will take over the felony case. Then Kohberger will have a chance to enter a plea to the charges. If he pleads not guilty, the case will begin working toward a trial. If he pleads guilty, a sentencing hearing will be set.

There’s no guarantee that a preliminary hearing will occur, however. Defendants often agree to skip preliminary hearings for all sorts of reasons, and skipping one does not imply any admission of guilt. Likewise, if a defendant loses a preliminary hearing, they are still presumed innocent in the eyes of the law, and the preliminary hearing cannot be used against them when the case goes to trial.

The prosecutor has not yet said if he will seek the death penalty in Kohberger’s case. If Thompson decides to seek the death penalty, he has to file a formal notice with the court no later than 60 days after Kohberger enters a plea.