Jury Selection in Lori Vallow Murder Trial Touches on Religious Belief, Internet Misinformation
The murder trial of Lori Vallow Daybell, 49, which began with jury selection on Monday in Boise, Idaho, has all the makings of a media firestorm. The deceased include two of her three children: Tylee Ashlyn Ryan, who was 16 when she died, and adopted son Joshua Jaxon “J.J.” Vallow, who was seven. The third victim was Tammy Daybell, wife of Chad Daybell, 54 — a man whom she married just two weeks after Tammy’s death. Prosecutors say that Vallow and Daybell, who are being tried separately for a conspiracy to carry out the killings due to undisclosed DNA evidence, wanted to collect life insurance and other benefits. (Daybell and Vallow have both pleaded not guilty.)
That would be ghastly enough, but this case is far stranger than a story about people allegedly going to extreme ends to arrange and finance a new relationship together. Vallow had met Daybell, the man who would become her fifth husband, in 2018, after reading his popular novels about devout Mormons attempting to survive apocalyptic end times. Both were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and shared an interest in near-death experiences. Daybell also claimed to hear a “voice” from the spirit world, or “beyond the veil,” the place one travels after death. (Daybell was reportedly excommunicated from the Church in 2019, while it’s unclear what Vallow’s current association is. The Church did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Prosecutors allege that the pair’s fringe religious beliefs played a direct role in a murder plot, as they considered the victims “zombies” infected by evil spirits that could be driven out if the individuals died, releasing their hijacked human souls. Melanie Gibb, a friend of Vallow’s, told authorities that she had referred to her children as “zombies” before they went missing in September 2019. Their remains were found and identified in a search of Daybell’s property in Rexburg, Idaho the following June.
Because of the notoriety of the case, the trials were moved from their rural communities across the state to the capital, where 1,800 people were called in March as potential jurors in Vallow’s proceedings. As the court began the process of voir dire to vet those eligible for jury service in a trial expected to last eight weeks, lawyers for the prosecution and defense touched on the sensitive issues that are sure to make it a controversial and widely publicized one.
Madison County Prosecuting Attorney Rob Wood was first to raise the matter of misinformation, mentioning not only sensational media coverage but online theories. He told the jury panel that a lot of supposed facts circulating now “aren’t true,” and that much of the news related to Vallow will have no bearing on the case before them. He also asked, “Does anybody here feel like what they see on the internet is true?”
Vallow has been the subject of countless hours of amateur investigation and speculation on the internet, where she is often referred to as “Doomsday Mom.” YouTube videos on true crime channels offer analysis such as “Is Lori Vallow Daybell Mentally Ill or Pure Evil?” while TikToks tagged “Lori Vallow Daybell” have more than 33 million views, collectively. It’s safe to say these aren’t the most reliable sources of information on the story. Leah Sottile, the journalist who reported on the circumstances of the murders in her book When the Moon Turns to Blood, noted on Friday that even before the trial had gotten underway, “disinformation” about it was spreading.
After Wood also indicated that jurors would face the difficult task of seeing images from autopsies of Vallow’s children, prosecutor Rachel Smith touched on the religious aspects of the case, asking the panel if any of them would have trouble accepting the testimony of witnesses with different religious beliefs than their own. Rexburg is home to the LDS Church’s Brigham Young University–Idaho and its population is heavily Mormon, while Idaho itself has the second-highest concentration of LDS members by state after Utah. Evidence will no doubt involve LDS family and acquaintances describing Daybell and Vallow’s idiosyncratic approach to Mormon doctrine.
Smith further asked if, despite the exaggerated forensics shown on fictional TV series like CSI, prospective jurors would trust an expert who concluded that a person died of homicide but could not determine exactly how. She was sure to address the theme of conspiracy as well, asking the panel, “If you were presented evidence that a person can be guilty of participating in a crime they planned, can you consider convicting them even if they didn’t do every single part or do the final act?” The implication is that while prosecutors may argue that Daybell carried out the murders himself, they will also Vallow planned them with him and bears responsibility. (She has been separately charged with conspiracy to commit murder in Arizona, where her brother Alex Cox fatally shot her estranged fourth husband, Charles Vallow, in July 2019, months before her children went missing and Tammy Daybell died. Cox, who claimed self-defense, died of natural causes later that year.)
Between the brutality of these alleged inter-family crimes, the element of religious extremism among a tight-knit community, and the way that Vallow’s and Daybell’s public reputations have made them magnets for all kinds of publicity and irresponsible conjecture, the lawyers certainly have their work cut out for them in seating a dozen impartial jurors and six alternates. Meanwhile, a debate among the legal team played out as to whether Larry and Kay Woodcock, grandparents of J.J. Vallow, should be allowed to sit in the trial, and the prosecution has expressed its displeasure that Chad Daybell’s attorney John Prior has been on hand at the courthouse to give comments to the media.
All of it adds up to an unpredictable and potentially explosive trial that could land Vallow in prison for life without the chance for parole. It’s taken years of legal wrangling for the justice system to get to this point — and the saga is far from over.
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