Bryan Kohberger’s court-appointed attorney was representing the mother of one of the four students he is accused of killing before taking his case, raising questions for legal experts about whether it poses a conflict of interest.

Anne Taylor, the chief of the Kootenai County public defender’s office, began representing Kohberger, 28, after he was extradited to Idaho, where he is charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of felony burglary, earlier in January.

Kohberger is accused of breaking into a rental home in Moscow, Idaho, in the early hours of November 13 and fatally stabbing Kaylee Goncalves, 21, Madison Mogen, 21, Xana Kernodle, 20, and Ethan Chapin, 20.

He was a Ph.D. student in criminology at Washington State University in nearby Pullman, but was arrested at his parents’ home in Pennsylvania on December 30. Kohberger has yet to enter a plea, but a lawyer who represented Kohberger in Pennsylvania has said that he is “eager to be exonerated.”

Bryan Kohberger sits as his attorney speaks
Bryan Kohberger sits as his attorney, public defender Anne Taylor, right, speaks during a hearing in Latah County District Court on January 5, 2023, in Moscow, Idaho.
Ted S. Warren/Pool-Getty Images

Court records show Taylor filed an attorney withdrawal notice in Kootenai County Court for Kernodle’s mother, Cara Kernodle, on January 5—the same day Kohberger made an initial appearance in the Latah County courtroom. The substituted attorney, Christopher Schwartz, is listed as a “conflict public defender” in the court documents.

Since Taylor took over the public defender’s office in 2017, her office has defended the parent in four cases, the Idaho Statesman reported.

NewsNation reported that in the most recent case, drug charges were filed against Cara Kernodle on November 19—less than a week after the murders took place. Taylor is now listed as an “inactive” attorney in the case.

According to the Statesman, Taylor’s office has also represented another parent of a murder victim in four criminal cases since she became chief public defender. Taylor is named as an “inactive” attorney in two of those cases, the newspaper reported.

Legal experts say the details raise questions about possible conflicts of interest in what has become an extremely high-profile case. Newsweek has attempted to contact the Kernodle family through its new attorney and Taylor’s office for comment.

“The mere fact that the public defender was forced to make a decision about which client to represent reflects a potential issue of competing loyalties,” Michael McAuliffe, a former federal prosecutor and elected state attorney, told Newsweek.

McAuliffe said Taylor “is surely acting in good faith, trying to navigate the applicable ethical obligations” but the potential conflict of interest is “significant.”

Taylor “may have withdrawn from the active case involving victim’s parent when she was assigned the Kohberger case, but she can’t unlearn the information she acquired in the course of those earlier representations,” he said. “We have no idea to what extent that information might include the murder victim.

“Further, a murder victim’s relatives have a right to be heard in almost every jurisdiction in the U.S. in a charged homicide case. If the state files a notice of intent to seek the death penalty, the parent (the public defender’s former client) will have a specific right and special standing to be heard in the capital case including any proposed resolution or plea.”

Neama Rahmani, an attorney and former federal prosecutor, said there is “a potential conflict of interest because Taylor presumably has to cross-examine the parent during the guilt or death penalty phase of the trial, if necessary.”

“The parent is a former and not current client, so the ethical rules are very fact driven,” Rahmani told Newsweek.

“The analysis turns on whether Taylor received confidential information from the parent during her representation that may be relevant to Kohberger or the victim.

“If so, Taylor may have to ‘wall’ herself off and have another attorney handle the parent witness. If the wall does not effectively maintain the confidentiality of the parent communications, or if the wall would not allow Taylor to effectively represent Kohberger, Taylor would have to withdraw from the case entirely. If there is an actual conflict, it may be imputed to the public defender’s office, disqualifying anyone in the office from representing Kohberger.”

Taylor is one of 13 public defenders in Idaho who are approved to lead a capital punishment case, but the only one in North Idaho, according to the Statesman. Prosecutors have not yet indicted if they will seek the death penalty in Kohberger’s case.

“The fact that other public defenders in Idaho are qualified to handle death penalty cases might provide a solution, but those other qualified public defenders don’t appear to be located in northern Idaho,” McAuliffe said.

“The public defender’s assignment to the Kohberger case presents complicated scenario where the applicable code of professional conduct for Idaho lawyers provides guidance, but no easy or clear answers.”

He added that the case “requires diligence to avoid issues that might interfere with the integrity of the process or the result.

“The public defender’s role as the lawyer for a murder victim’s parent where she now represents the alleged murderer––at a minimum––presents an appearance of a possible conflict.”

Chris Darden, a prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson trial, has said that Taylor “should not be representing” Kohberger.

“It’s the new one where there’s a conflict and it’s the new one that she should have conflicted off,” he said on NewsNation’s CUOMO. “She should not be representing him. She should continue to represent the mother that she has represented or her office is represented on three and four occasions prior, it makes no sense to conflict on those and keep this case.”

A gag order issued by Latah County Magistrate Judge Megan Marshall earlier this month bars Taylor—along with law enforcement agencies and others associated with the case—from talking about it. It was broadened last week to also prohibit attorneys representing survivors, witnesses or the victims’ family members from talking or writing about the case.

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