It will be months before prosecutors try to show a judge that they have enough evidence to justify the charges against Bryan Kohberger, and experts have told Newsweek that the cellphone data could be instrumental in providing that evidence.
Kohberger, 28, is accused of breaking into a rental home in Moscow, Idaho, in the early hours of November 13 and fatally stabbing four University of Idaho students—Kaylee Goncalves, 21, Madison Mogen, 21, Xana Kernodle, 20, and Ethan Chapin, 20.
He is facing four counts of first-degree murder and one count of felony burglary. He has not entered a plea but a lawyer who represented him previously said Kohberger was “eager to be exonerated.” The preliminary hearing is set to begin on June 26.
A probable cause affidavit unsealed in early January revealed that investigators obtained Kohberger’s cellphone records after police officers at Washington State University, where he was a doctoral candidate in criminology, identified a white 2015 Hyundai Elantra registered to him. It matched the description of a vehicle that had been seen near the crime scene on the night of the killings.
The affidavit said Kohberger’s phone was either turned off or on airplane mode around the time of the killings, but the data right before it was turned off suggested he was heading in the direction of the home while data after it was turned back on suggested he was heading away from there. Using the data and surveillance footage of the vehicle that police identified as a white Hyundai Elantra, investigators sketched out a possible route that Kohberger could have taken on the night of the killings.
Other cellular data showed Kohberger had been in the neighborhood at least a dozen times prior to the murders, always late in the evening or early in the morning, the affidavit said.
Here, experts tell Newsweek about how Kohberger’s cellphone data and other records could be used against him.
Joseph Giacalone, adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice
“Cellphone records place him at or near the scene,” Giacalone said.
That Kohberger turned his device on and off “can explain the intent to go unnoticed,” he said. “In addition, if he left his phone on, he might have attached to the WiFi. There is still much we don’t know about the cellphone.”
Giacalone said he would also be interested in whether investigators have video surveillance that shows Kohberger returning to his apartment on the night of the murders. “I have yet to hear if any exists,” he said.
He said other records from Kohberger’s phone could also be key, such as map programs, Internet searches, and other apps.
“Cellphone records, Internet records and video surveillance not only play a role in this case, but just about every criminal investigation moving forward,” he said.
Duncan Levin, managing partner of Levin & Associates
“The cellphone records will be used to show particularly that Kohberger is alleged to have turned off his phone for a few hours around the time of the commission of the offense and that it pinged near the site of the murders directly thereafter,” Levin said. “It also allegedly shows that he came to the area of the murder scene in the months preceding.”
Levin said Kohberger’s defense attorney “will argue that the cell towers are accurate to about 20 miles, which is the distance roughly between his apartment and the scene of the crime.
“In other words, he will argue that there is a margin of error in the records that does not prove what the state is alleging.”
Levin added: “It’s really true that our phones know everything about us. Cellphone technology is being used around the country in criminal cases and act like beacons to show where people were and when.”
Michael McAuliffe, former federal prosecutor and elected state attorney
“The location and the movements of Kohberger before, during, and after the killings will play a major role in prosecuting him,” McAuliffe said. “Cellphone location and tracking evidence will be the basis for that proof.”
McAuliffe explained that law enforcement uses triangulation from signals between individual cellphones and towers to determine movement and location—and newer phones can be located with greater accuracy with GPS technology.
“Cellphone location and tracking evidence can be extremely valuable in building cases,” he said. “The caveat is that a phone needs to be tied to a specific person. However, given our cultural penchant to taking one’s phone everywhere, it is not difficult to link a cellphone and a person.”
Joseph Scott Morgan, professor of applied forensics at Jacksonville State University in Alabama
Kohberger’s cellphone records will be used alongside his social media usage in order to demonstrate his movements in the “months, weeks, days, hours, minutes leading up to crime,” Morgan said.
It might be used to demonstrate that he made contact with the victims prior to the murders, as well as his movements around the time of the killings and the day after.
Morgan said those records could also be used to validate, or invalidate, any possible alibis that may be put forth by Kohberger’s defense attorney.
Neama Rahmani, president and co-founder of West Coast Trial Lawyers
“The cell site evidence would be better if Kohberger’s phone didn’t turn off or go on airplane mode for several hours when the murders happened,” Rahmani said.
“Prosecutors will argue that the path of travel to and from Idaho is enough, and the phone pinging from the house before and after the murders is evidence he was stalking the victims,” Rahmani said.
But the defense “will argue that the time stamps of the cell site pings are inconsistent with the videos of the vehicle.”
Rahmani said evidence that Kohberger sent messages to one of the victims on social media could also be used against him.
“The Instagram direct messages are also good,” he said. “That’s the only direct connection so far between Kohberger and one of the victims, and evidence of motive to commit the murders.”