More than three years after her initial arrest on charges of child desertion, Lori Vallow-Daybell, now accused of three counts of first-degree murder, appeared in Ada County Court Monday for the first day of her trial.
Monday and Tuesday’s court sessions comprised six rounds of jury selection in which one panel at a time undergoes voir dire, or examination by the judge, prosecutors and defense attorneys to determine what individuals qualify to serve as impartial jurors.
Vallow-Daybell is charged with three counts of first-degree murder and three counts of conspiracy to commit murder in the deaths of her daughter, Tylee Ryan, her son, JJ Vallow and her husband Chad’s first wife, Tammy Daybell. Chad Daybell faces the same charges but will have his trial at a later date.
At the conclusion of voir dire for Tuesday’s court session (so far, in each session the parties have examined three panels of 15 individuals) there were 30 jurors approved to continue onto the next phase of selection. In this first phase, jurors who either party believes are potentially biased may be challenged with cause, the judge having the ultimate say. Several jurors for various reasons have been dismissed in each session so far. At the conclusion of Monday’s third group, only one juror remained.
The Court has to create a pool of 42 potential jurors. In the next phase, those 42 will be cut down until 18: 12 jurors and 6 alternate jurors. The prosecution and the defense will each have 12 peremptory challenges, meaning they can ask to eliminate any juror without cause or explanation. It is expected jury selection will last for the remainder of the first week of Vallow-Daybell’s eight-week trial.
In voir dire, the jurors must answer questions regarding how their life circumstances and experiences might influence their ability to objectively follow instructions, consider evidence, apply the law and decide a verdict in a trial.
Each panel session begins with questions from Fremont County District Judge Steven Boyce in which he polls the jurors on their previous exposure to information about the case, relationships to those involved in the case, undue hardships that would result from participation in a jury, and other factors that could inhibit their ability to impartially serve in the trial. Those who claim undue burdens or who give potentially problematic responses are questioned further by the judge and dismissed if deemed appropriate.
The prosecution, consisting of Fremont County Prosecutor Lindsey Blake, Madison County Prosecutor Rob Wood and Special Prosecutor Rachel Smith, then conducts their voir dire.
Alternating with each other, Blake and Wood have led into each voir dire by exhorting the jurors to be “brutally honest” in their responses.
Springboarding off answers provided in their questionnaires, the prosecuting attorneys asked specific jurors questions like, “Is everything you see on the Internet true?” that they would then use to emphasize larger points like setting aside prior notions about the case and only considering information provided in the courtroom.
They also pressed jurors on whether they were able to sit on a jury with the knowledge that the case involves a mother of five and the alleged murder of two children.
Smith, a seasoned prosecutor from Missouri deputized in Madison and Fremont counties for her experience in homicide cases, would conduct the second half of the State’s voir dires.
Smith’s questions focused on whether the jurors were willing to apply the law despite their own personal reservations about its merits and whether they were willing to convict a defendant based on circumstantial evidence. Smith continued that in Idaho a participant in a crime, whether or not they directly perpetuated it, is guilty of that crime.
Tuesday morning, Smith pressed a juror in the first group on the threshold that the State must meet to prove a defendant guilty. The juror had stated in their questionnaire that they would have to have “no doubt” the defendant is guilty in order to convict them as such. Smith emphasized that the State’s obligation is to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime in question.
Smith also asked jurors if they were willing to convict somebody if authorities consider a death a homicide, but they cannot explain what the actual cause of death was. Tammy Daybell’s death was originally attributed to natural causes, but her body was exhumed by law enforcement in December 2019, though the autopsy results were not publicized.
Jim Archibald, one of Vallow-Daybell’s lawyers, has been handling the defense’s voir dire. Archibald started his lines of questioning by first focusing on jurors who have possible undue burdens and did not indicate it during the Court’s voir dire.
At any time during their voir dire, the examiner may challenge a juror with cause, and request to remove them from the pool.
On Tuesday, Archibald challenged a juror who is a probation officer citing potential bias against the defendant. The Court found no indication of bias, however, and the juror remained.
Jurors who noted that they had previous knowledge of the case were individually questioned by the parties apart from the rest of the pool.
Vallow-Daybell at various times appeared in good spirits — she’s even seen joking and laughing with her attorneys. Nate Eaton at East Idaho News reported from the Ada County Courtroom that during the individual voir dire of Tuesday’s third set of jurors, she seemed “intently focused” and appeared to be taking notes.
The trial is restricted for viewing to the Ada County Courthouse and a simulcast viewing room in the Madison County Courthouse. Tickets to view the trial can be reserved on the Ada County Courts website.