A 12-person jury decided Lori Vallow Daybell’s fate Friday, as dozens of spectators — family members, friends, reporters and podcasters — awaited the looming verdict in her criminal trial. The jury of five women and seven men convicted the 49-year-old Rexburg mother of murdering two of her children.
Guilty of two first-degree murders, the 49-year-old woman now has the same convictions Gerald Pizzuto and Thomas Creech had when they were put on Idaho death row. Had Vallow Daybell been guilty of one count of conspiracy to commit murder — she was found guilty of three — she still would’ve been eligible for execution, prosecutors said.
But for Vallow Daybell, the death penalty is no longer an option.
Two weeks before a slew of potential jurors made their way to the Ada County Courthouse in early April, 7th District Judge Steven Boyce removed the death penalty as a potential sentence for Vallow Daybell.
Jessica Bublitz, a Boise-based defense attorney, told the Idaho Statesman in a phone interview that “it’s very uncommon” for a judge to strike the death penalty.
In fact, it’s never happened before in Idaho. Boyce said he couldn’t find any case in the state for which removal of capital punishment had been considered or ruled on — which means there isn’t a precedent for the decision in Idaho, according to an audio recording of the March hearing published by East Idaho News.
Boyce’s decision came after Vallow Daybell’s defense team asked Boyce to dismiss execution as an option. The March 5 motion listed several reasons, including an allegation that the prosecution made “multiple discovery violations” by submitting thousands of documents and pieces of evidence past a deadline set by the court.
“Defense counsel don’t know what we don’t have,” the motion said.
Why Vallow Daybell can’t be sentenced to death
To convict Vallow Daybell of the first-degree murder charges for JJ and Tylee, the jury needed to conclude that she killed her children, or encouraged or commanded someone else to do so. Anyone convicted of first-degree murder is eligible for the death penalty in Idaho, according to the state’s code, if the state can prove there was an “aggravating circumstance” — for example, committing more than one murder at the same time, creating a “great risk” to the public, or murdering someone in an especially heinous, atrocious or cruel way.
Three years ago, authorities found the remains of 7-year-old Joshua Jaxon “JJ” Vallow and 16-year-old Tylee Ryan buried in shallow graves on the property of Chad Daybell, Vallow Daybell’s husband.
The Daybells were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and held fringe beliefs that dark spirits can possess bodies and should be cast out, which causes death. Prosecutors in the indictment accused the Daybells of espousing religious beliefs “for the purpose of justifying” or encouraging the homicides.
As attorneys began to prosecute the criminal case, investigators turned over new information during the discovery process — which meant the defense received new information as the prosecution learned about it.
The cases of Lori Vallow Daybell and Chad Daybell, who were initially expected to be tried together, were severed in early March, when test results for a potential piece of DNA evidence — a hair sample found at the crime scene — was submitted too close to the looming trial date, according to a recording of the hearing published by East Idaho News.
Boyce noted that Chad and Lori Vallow Daybell complained about delays in receiving evidence and argued that the “large volumes” of information being disclosed too close to the impending trial were “impeding the ability of the defense to prepare.”
Bublitz told the Statesman that Boyce has an obligation to ensure the discovery process is fair. “There’s a responsibility all the way around,” she said, because it’s part of the judge’s job to determine whether certain evidence can be admitted if it was submitted late.
“These disclosures were coming in at a time in the case when it could really prevent Lori’s counsel from having time to go through everything,” Bublitz said. “It puts you between a rock and a hard place. You have to be able to go through them in time.”
Boyce said the items disclosed in March were “inarguably” and “inexcusably” late. He pointed to the large disclosure of evidence that was dropped the day after the deadline, plus the additional discovery that wasn’t provided to the defense until weeks after the initial deadline.
Boyce also noted that leaving the death penalty on the table could hinder the conviction.
“If I were to fail to address this discovery issue, I believe this case would inevitably be reversed on appeal if there was a capital conviction,” Boyce said. The defense agreed and in its motion said that “any death verdict” would be annulled, forcing the case to start over.
Ultimately, Boyce’s decision in late March to remove the death penalty, he said, wasn’t to “penalize the state” but to make sure that Vallow Daybell’s constitutional rights were protected and allow her attorneys the opportunity to prepare a reasonable defense against the alleged crimes. Boyce noted that he and Vallow Daybell’s attorney Jim Archibald have worked with the prosecution and called them “honest prosecutors.”
“This is not the result of a single discovery violation but rather the cumulative effect of a divulge of discovery coming too close to trial,” Boyce said.
The prosecution, in a written statement, said it was “disappointed” and disagreed with Boyce’s decision, East Idaho News reported.
“We will continue to vigorously pursue justice,” the prosecutors said.
The death penalty is still an option in Chad Daybell’s trial, which is expected to be scheduled for next year.
Vallow Daybell took ‘a risk’ in moving forward with trial
Though Boyce said no Idaho case has considered removing the death penalty sentence, Boyce cited a federal 2012 felony case, in which a man was charged with two felonies related to the killing of a security guard at a Naval base in Puerto Rico.
Former U.S. District Judge José Fusté barred the prosecution from seeking the death penalty, according to the judge’s order. Fusté found the attorneys for the government were reluctant to disclose information, and the court “practically forced” the prosecution to turn over evidence to the defense, the order said.
Boyce said he’s overseen hundreds of their previous cases, including murder cases, and this hasn’t been an issue before.
Now, the most severe punishment Vallow Daybell could face is up to life in prison.
The “logical remedy” to the violations, Boyce said, would have been to postpone the trial, but Vallow Daybell has “unequivocally asserted her right to a speedy trial.” A criminal trial is expected to start six months after an individual pleads not guilty, if a defendant doesn’t waive their right to a speedy trial.
Daybell was found guilty of all six felony charges Friday. On top of two first-degree murder counts, she was convicted of three counts of conspiracy to commit murder for her children along with Chad Daybell’s then-wife, Tammy Daybell, and grand theft for stealing government benefits.
“I would caution the defendant — her attorneys have also cautioned her — that by insisting on going forward with the trial now, knowing there’s additional evidence they are not prepared to address, that’s a risk,” Boyce said in March.