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Lawyers screen potential jurors in Idaho trial of Lori Vallow Daybell

Trial expected to last up to 12 weeks
Posted at 9:03 PM, Apr 02, 2023

As the trial of a woman charged in three killings in what prosecutors say was a doomsday-focused plot began Monday, attorneys asked potential jurors if they would have trouble being impartial after viewing autopsy photos of children.

“This is a case that deals with murder. This is a case where two of the alleged victims are underage children,” prosecutor Rob Wood told the panel of potential jurors, warning them that some of the evidence would be “emotionally charged.”

Prosecutors charged Lori Vallow Daybell and her husband, Chad Daybell, with conspiracy, murder and grand theft in connection with the deaths of Vallow Daybell's two youngest children: 7-year-old Joshua “JJ” Vallow and big sister Tylee Ryan, who was last seen a few days before her 17th birthday in 2019. Prosecutors also have charged the couple in connection with the October 2019 death of Chad Daybell's late wife, Tammy Daybell.

The investigation garnered worldwide attention and was closely followed in the rural eastern Idaho community where the bodies of the children were found buried in Chad Daybell’s yard. As a result, Seventh District Judge Steven Boyce moved the trial more than 200 miles (320 kilometers) east to the city of Boise.

Both defendants have pleaded not guilty, but only Vallow Daybell's trial begins Monday. The cases have been severed, and Chad Daybell's trial is still months away. Vallow Daybell faces up to life in prison if convicted.

“It isn't necessarily easy to look at,” Wood said of the autopsy photos.

One potential juror said she had two elementary school-aged children, and she believed it would be difficult for her to look at that sort of evidence. Still, she said, she would try to put her feelings aside and remain impartial if selected for the jury.

Another member of the prosecution team, Rachel Smith, asked the potential jurors if they could convict someone of conspiring to commit a crime even if they didn't take part in every part of the crime itself.

“The driver of the getaway car is as guilty as the bank robber. Does that make sense to everyone?” Smith asked. Yes, the panel of potential jurors agreed.

Authorities summoned 1,800 potential jurors to the courthouse in late March, requiring each of them to complete a 20-page questionnaire in hopes of winnowing out anyone unable to fairly try the case. On Monday morning, defense attorneys and prosecutors began questioning the remaining jury pool members in an effort to pick 12 jurors and six alternates to hear the case.

Jury selection could take a few days, and the trial itself could take up to eight weeks.

A line to enter the Ada County Courthouse stretched outside the building before proceedings began Monday. Four other trials were also being held at the courthouse, and jurors stood alongside news reporters as they all waited to pass through metal detectors and security screening.

Court administrators have anticipated a lot of interest in the case, setting up a special parking area for TV news trucks and cordoning off an area in front of the building for photographers and others.

Idaho law, like most states, seeks to shield jurors' identities. Roughly 42 journalists and other onlookers were seated in a separate room to watch the jury selection process through a video streaming system, the cameras positioned to show Vallow Daybell and her defense attorneys Jim Archibald and John Thomas; the prosecutors Rob Wood, Lindsey Blake and Rachel Smith; and 7th District Judge Steven Boyle.

Vallow Daybell sat between her defense team. She leaned forward to listen to the questions posed to the jury pool. She occasionally appeared to take notes as the potential jurors spoke.

One potential juror said she watched several seasons of the fictional television crime show “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” which focuses on how forensic experts and crime scene investigators solve often gruesome crimes.

Smith asked if her avid CSI-watching would affect her feelings about the evidence from experts and crime lab technicians during the case.

“You may not know exactly how they died,” Smith said about the victims in the case. “Would anything in that make it difficult for you to sit in judgment on a case?” No, the potential juror said.

Prosecutors say the Daybells espoused strange doomsday-focused beliefs to further their alleged plan to kill the kids and Tammy Daybell to collect life insurance money and the children’s social security and survivor benefits.

Police documents detailed interviews with family members and friends who said the couple led a group that met to pray, believing they could drive out evil spirits and seek revelations from “beyond the spiritual veil.” Vallow Daybell’s close friend Melanie Gibb told investigators that the couple believed people became “zombies” when they were possessed by evil spirits.

The group would spend time praying to get rid of the zombies and believed, if they were successful, the possessed person would physically die, freeing their trapped soul from “limbo.” Vallow Daybell called JJ and Tylee “zombies” several times before they died, Gibb told investigators.

Idaho law enforcement officers started investigating the couple in November 2019 after extended family members reported the children were missing. During that period, police say the couple lied about the children’s whereabouts. The children's bodies were found buried on Chad Daybell’s property in rural Idaho.

The couple married two weeks after Chad Daybell’s previous wife died unexpectedly. Tammy Daybell’s death was initially reported as resulting from natural causes, but investigators had her body exhumed after suspicions grew when Chad Daybell quickly remarried.

HOW DID THE CASE BEGIN?

JJ's grandparents, Larry and Kay Woodcock of Louisiana, were increasingly worried about the kids in 2019. For the first half of the year, Lori Vallow Daybell was still married to JJ's father, Charles Vallow, but the two were estranged and he had filed for divorce.

In the divorce documents, Vallow claimed his wife believed she was a god-like figure, sent to usher in the apocalypse and carry out the work of 144,000 believers.

Their marriage ended suddenly in July when Lori's brother, Alex Cox, shot and killed her husband outside the family's suburban Phoenix home. Police initially determined the shooting was in self-defense and Cox was never charged.

Vallow Daybell, the kids and Cox moved to eastern Idaho, and JJ's grandparents struggled to reach him by phone. The Woodcocks said Vallow Daybell wouldn't tell them why the child was always unavailable. They grew suspicious and called police.

WHEN DID THE CASE BECOME A MURDER INVESTIGATION?

Rexburg police performed a welfare check in November of 2019, and said Lori Vallow Daybell and Chad Daybell — an Idaho man who had known Lori for months — lied about the children's whereabouts.

When police returned the next day, the couple had left town.

Police determined Tylee Ryan was last seen in September headed into Yellowstone National Park with her mom and other family for a day trip, and JJ was last seen by school officials several days later.

The search spanned several states and continued until June 2020, when the children's bodies were found buried in the yard of Daybell's eastern Idaho home.

Detectives meanwhile learned that his previous wife, Tammy Daybell, had unexpectedly died in October 2019 of what was initially reported as “natural causes,” and the family had declined an autopsy.

Chad and Lori married just two weeks after Tammy's death. Authorities exhumed Tammy Daybell's body and expanded their investigation.

WHAT DO PROSECUTORS SAY HAPPENED?

Prosecutors say the Daybells espoused strange doomsday-focused beliefs to further their alleged plan to kill the kids and Tammy Daybell, then collect life insurance money and the kids' social security and survivor benefits.

Several family members and friends described to detectives a group led by Lori and Chad that met to pray, believing that they could drive out evil spirits and seek revelations from “beyond the spiritual veil.”

Though the beliefs Vallow Daybell’s friends described to detectives were loosely based in theology from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they veered into the extreme.

In police reports, one friend said Vallow Daybell told her she could “teleport” between Arizona and Hawaii, and that Daybell said he had a “portal” in his home where he could receive revelations and travel to other realms.

Vallow Daybell’s close friend Melanie Gibb told investigators that the couple used a scoring system to determine whether people were good or evil, and that they believed people became “zombies” when they were possessed by evil spirits.

The group would spend time praying to get rid of the zombies, and believed that if they were successful the possessed person would physically die, freeing their trapped soul from “limbo.”

Vallow Daybell called JJ and Tylee “zombies” several times before they died, Gibb told investigators.

WHAT DO DEFENSE ATTORNEYS SAY?

Vallow Daybell is being represented by eastern Idaho-based attorneys John Thomas and James Archibald.

She has pleaded not guilty in the case, and her attorneys have submitted formal notice that they intend to offer an alibi.

In that court document, Vallow Daybell's attorneys said she was in her own apartment in Rexburg, Idaho, when the children died at a nearby apartment where her brother lived. The attorneys said she was with a couple of friends, “and/or Chad Daybell.”

Her attorneys also wrote that Vallow Daybell was in Hawaii with other friends when Daybell’s previous wife died the next month.

Daybell's attorneys haven’t offered details about his planned defense, other than saying in court that Daybell and Vallow Daybell will have “ mutually antagonistic defenses ” — a legal term that generally means a jury would have to disbelieve one defendant in order to believe the other.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN DURING THE TRIAL?

Vallow Daybell’s trial is expected to last up to 12 weeks. Jury selection begins Monday.

The judge has banned cameras from the courtroom and the trial was moved to Boise to increase the likelihood of finding jurors that aren't deeply familiar with the case.

Her husband will be tried later.

Prosecutors announced they would seek the death penalty against both defendants. But just two weeks before the trial was to begin, 7th District Judge Steven Boyce granted a request from Vallow Daybell's defense attorneys to take the death penalty off the table.

The judge said the decision was made because of the volume of evidence that was turned over to the defense team. Vallow Daybell has not waived her right to a speedy trial, so it could not be delayed.

Daybell still faces the death penalty in his case.

ANY OTHER CHARGES?

Vallow Daybell has also been indicted in metro Phoenix on a charge of conspiring to murder Charles Vallow. The indictment says she conspired with her brother, Alex Cox, in Vallow's death.

Cox was never arrested in the case. He died five months after Vallow was killed from what medical examiners said was a pulmonary blood clot.

Idaho likely won't agree to extradite Vallow Daybell to face the Arizona charges until the case against her in Idaho is completed. She has not yet entered a plea in the Arizona case.