Conflicts of Interest in the Idaho Murders

GRACE SLICKLEN—On November 13, 2022, University of Idaho students Madison Mogen, Kaylee Goncalves, Xana Kernodle, and Ethan Chapin, were brutally murdered in an off-campus house that drew crime-solving efforts to the shaken small community. The horrific and shocking killings have had those on social media speculating about the who, the how, and the why. Even with a suspect in custody, many of these questions remain unanswered. But this case raises issues outside the details of the crime: those relating to the sacred client-lawyer relationship and potential conflicts of interest. 

On December 30, 2022, Bryan Kohberger was arrested on suspicion of murdering the four students. Immediately, Anne Taylor, Chief Public Defender in Kootenai County, Idaho, was appointed to represent Kohberger. Ms. Taylor first appeared on Kohberger’s behalf on the morning of January 5, 2023, where the court read the charges against the defendant. However, that same day, Ms. Taylor withdrew from representing victim Xana Kernodle’s mother on felony charges brought against her just days after her daughter’s jarring murder. It has since been revealed that Ms. Taylor also recently represented victim Madison Mogen’s father and stepmother on misdemeanor and felony charges, although she has been listed as inactive on those cases.

With such a seemingly close connection to those affected by these horrendous crimes, why has Ms. Taylor been appointed to this case in the first place? 

According to Rule 1.7 of the American Bar Association’s (“ABA”) Model Rules of Professional Conduct, “a lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation involves a concurrent conflict of interest” which exists if “(1) the representation of one client will be directly adverse to another client; or (2) there is a significant risk that the representation of one or more clients will be materially limited by the lawyer’s responsibilities to another client, a former client or a third person….” Per Rule 1.9, “[a] lawyer who has formerly represented a client in a matter shall not thereafter represent another person in…a substantially related matter in which that person’s interests are materially adverse to the interests of the former client….” Matters are substantially related “if they involve the same transaction or legal dispute or if there otherwise is a substantial risk that confidential factual information as would normally have been obtained in the prior representation would materially advance the client’s position in the subsequent matter.” The Idaho Rules of Professional Conduct generally resemble those of the ABA. 

While the connection between Ms. Taylor’s past clients and the victims is incontrovertible, the matters cannot be said to be “substantially related.” The victims and their families are not parties to the state’s case against Kohberger. But it is unclear whether any information Taylor learned while representing the victims’ parents could affect Kohberger’s case. It is also important to note that Xana Kernodle’s mother—Taylor’s past but very recent client—is uncomfortable with Ms. Taylor’s involvement in the case, negating any informed consent that could have served to mitigate the mounting conflict of interest concerns. 

While the situation is complex, perhaps a lack of resources explains why Ms. Taylor was pushed into this challenging position in the first place. As of March 2, 2023, the State of Idaho has identified fourteen lead trial attorneys qualified to represent indigent defendants who face or may face the death penalty. Ms. Taylor is the only attorney in Northern Idaho, also known as district one, on this list. While it is uncertain whether the prosecution will seek the death penalty for Kohberger, it remains a strong possibility. The potential imposition of capital punishment, coupled with the public’s growing interest in the Idaho murders, raises the stakes here. Of course, these concerns must be balanced against Kohberger’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Could Ms. Taylor’s status as lead attorney create a lack of distrust in the verdict eventually reached? 

Ultimately, ethical dilemma present in this case underscores the inadequacy of public defense in the United States. It also highlights those individual public defenders working to zealously advocate for their clients under the current constraints of our deficient system.