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Motive in Idaho killings unknown; how much does it matter?

(NewsNation) — Authorities have yet to outline the motive behind the brutal attack that killed four University of Idaho students after arresting 28-year-old suspect Bryan Kohberger last month.

Police have said the attacks were targeted and Danielle Slakoff — assistant professor of criminal justice at California State University, Sacramento — said there’s “no reason to question” that assessment.

“I anticipate that as we speak, law enforcement is diligently working to further shore up where that cellphone was and where they believe the suspect was at the time and will likely be trying to prove that he was scoping out the area,” Slakoff said Monday on “Rush Hour.”

Kohberger — a criminal justice graduate student — currently faces four counts of first-degree murder and a felony burglary charge in connection to the Nov. 13 deaths of Kaylee Goncalves, Madison Mogen, Xana Kernodle and Ethan Chapin.

Despite the public’s urge to understand why, experts NewsNation spoke to said the alleged killer’s reason for committing the crime may not matter in the end and won’t be necessary for getting a conviction.

Read the full probable cause affidavit here.

how important is motive for a conviction?

Experts say prosecutors don’t have to explain why a suspect committed a crime in order to get a conviction but it can be helpful for presenting the case to a jury.

“Prosecutors always like a motive, they always like to tell the jury the story of why this happened but the ‘why’ certainly is not needed for a conviction,” Bobby Chacon, a retired FBI special agent, told NewsNation.

Chacon said learning a suspect’s motive can be useful for collecting additional evidence, but it’s not vital for the case itself.

It’s easy to confuse motive with intent, or “mens rea,” to use a legal term. Prosecutors will try to prove that Kohberger intended to cause harm but they don’t have to spell out what led to that decision.

Nevertheless, lawyers say the lack of motive so far is likely to be the main focus for the defense.

“Did Mr. Kohberger know these victims? If not, the defense is really going to be drilling in on that,” federal criminal defense attorney Tama Kudman told NewsNation.

do first-degree murder charges mean police know the motive?

In Idaho, any “willful, deliberate and pre-meditated” killing is first-degree murder. In other words, prosecutors will have to prove that the killer committed the crime but the law does not require them to prove why the attacker did so.

Authorities have already outlined some of the evidence that may be used to prove Kohberger “pre-meditated” the attack. Investigators said Kohberger’s phone was in the area around the crime scene “on at least twelve occasions” prior to Nov. 13, 2022, according to the probable cause affidavit.

The arrest document said the suspect’s previous visits to the area could be evidence that he was surveilling the area prior to the attack.

But prosecutors don’t have to prove the attack was planned months in advance in order to show intent.

The Idaho Supreme Court has repeatedly held that “premeditation does not require any appreciable space of time between the intention to kill and the killing,” according to the Idaho Law Review.

In fact, prosecutors may not even have to prove intent. In Idaho, any murder committed in the perpetration of “rape, robbery, burglary or kidnapping” is first-degree murder.

If Kohberger is found guilty of burglary, which he is also charged with, prosecutors may not have to prove he intended to kill in order to convict him of all charges.

when could we learn the motive?

An Idaho judge has issued a gag order that bars lawyers for both sides and additional authorities with information about the case from discussing details with the public.

The order is meant to preserve the integrity of the case and means any additional information regarding the suspect’s motive may remain unknown until the case goes to trial.

what other evidence is out there?

Investigators used DNA found on a knife sheath at the scene, cell phone pings from Kohberger’s phone and surveillance video of a white Hyundai Elantra to link the 28-year-old suspect to the crime, but that doesn’t mean it’s all the evidence they have.

With Kohberger in custody, experts say authorities will be able to determine if the suspect’s DNA is a direct match with the DNA found on the knife sheath. Previously, the DNA on the sheath was connected to Kohberger’s father, which was determined after authorities collected trash from the family home in Pennsylvania.

Investigators have removed evidence from Kohberger’s apartment in Pullman and have possession of his vehicle. It’s unclear what additional evidence has been found from those sources.

Experts say the probable cause affidavit laid out the justification for Kohberger’s arrest but that doesn’t mean it’s the entire case.

“We have enough information and evidence for probable cause to arrest, but that does not mean that we have enough evidence for proof beyond reasonable doubt,” Kudman said.