BOISE, Idaho (AP) — 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.