Criminal defense attorney Sara Azari defended Idaho murder suspect Bryan Kohberger‘s decision to remain silent during his arraignment, calling it a “smart” legal strategy that wasn’t fueled by personal “nefarious reason.”
On Monday, Kohberger was arraigned on burglary and murder charges in the November 13 killings in Moscow, Idaho, where four University of Idaho students were found dead in a student rental house. When the charges were read, the 28-year-old declined to enter a plea and his public defender announced that he was “standing silent,” prompting the judge to enter a not guilty plea on his behalf.
The decision to stand mute raised questions about whether Kohberger was trying to avoid facing the death penalty, but Azari argued that there are “absolutely” advantages to standing mute, tweeting, “When you learn about the legal strategy behind this you will know it’s for good, not nefarious reason.”
“There is no … written legal advantage that by standing mute, you’re going to get something or you’re not going to get the death penalty,” Azari said in an appearance on NewsNation. “As it stands, Idaho is a death penalty state. The state has not sought the death penalty, although they certainly can. We’re still in the middle of discovery.”
Instead, she said, the decision to stand mute was a “smart” strategy to appease the families of the victims and “showing some form of remorse.”
“We say silence is golden … [It’s about] leaving the door open so that if this is a really bad case in terms of irrefutable evidence and he does in fact, ultimately, plead guilty in exchange for the death penalty to come off or what not, that he’s not now pissed off four hurting, reeling families,” she said.
Although standing mute could help Kohberger’s reputation with the families of the victims, attorneys pointed out to Newsweek that it doesn’t change the course of the criminal case.
“It makes no legal difference in the case,” former federal prosecutor and elected state attorney Michael McAuliffe told Newsweek. “The silence likely reflects some personal decision by the defendant not to address the Court other than to state he understands the charges.”
Neama Rhamani, president of West Coast Trial Lawyers and former federal prosecutor, agreed, saying that defendants have the Fifth Amendment right to not enter a plea, but that “there is no real legal or strategic difference between standing silent and pleading not guilty.”
Should the state decide to seek the death penalty in the case of Kohberger, legal experts say it’s possible that he changes his plea to guilty in hopes of lowering the penalty. That’s what Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz did when he was facing death.
In Cruz’s case, the jury ultimately decided to spare him and send him to life in prison instead—a decision that left the victims’ families shocked and angered. Azari said because Kohberger did not publicly state “not guilty” like Cruz did, he could avoid some blowback should he change his plea.
“Families under Marsy’s Law have a considerable voice regarding plea agreements and whether the prosecution will seek the death penalty,” trial attorney Christa Haggai Ramey told Newsweek. “Staying silent rather than affirmatively pleading not guilty might help with those negotiations.”