Applying evidence to 3D model of Chad Daybell’s property
Sep 10, 2020, 11:45 PM | Updated: Apr 27, 2023, 3:13 pm
This is the second in a two-part story about forensic visualization, a 3D model of the Daybell property and its potential use in the criminal cases against Chad Daybell and Lori Vallow. Part one is available here.
REXBURG, Idaho — Visual Law Group president Mark Johnson sees three advantages to the use of 3D renderings in the courtroom: education, persuasion and emotion.
“Modern trials have to connect with juries every bit as much as anyone must connect with an audience,” Johnson said. “Visual information is probably the best way that you can reach people.”
Jurors in eastern Idaho may soon be tasked with interpreting a mountain of complex information in the criminal cases against Chad Daybell and his wife, Lori Vallow Daybell. They each face felony charges related to the disappearances and deaths of Lori’s children, JJ Vallow and Tylee Ryan.
With a January 2021 trial date for Chad Daybell approaching, KSL-TV and KSL NewsRadio partnered with Visual Law Group to create a unique 3D model of the primary crime scene in the case: Daybell’s property on the outskirts of Rexburg in Fremont County, Idaho. That’s where police and FBI agents located and exhumed the remains of both children while serving a search warrant on June 9-10, 2020.
The 3D model of the Daybell property, when applied to testimony in the case, can offer useful insight regarding what happened on that day.
“It’s important to be able to explain to the jury, what are the important landmarks, what are the important elements, what are the things we know for certain,” Johnson said.
Daybell’s preliminary hearing, which occurred on Aug. 3, 2020, in Fremont County Magistrate Court, presented a strong example of how forensic visualization could come into play.
The Preliminary Hearing
At the preliminary hearing, Rexburg police detective Ray Hermasillo sat on the witness stand and recounted the events of the day in June when he’d arrived to serve the search warrant. Daybell had been at home at the time. Hermasillo described telling Daybell he was free to leave while they conducted their search.
“Mr. Daybell left and went and sat in his vehicle which was parked in the driveway facing west,” Hermasillo said.
Special prosecutor Rob Wood then turned to Magistrate Judge Farren Eddins.
“Your honor, the state does have a demonstrative exhibit we’d like to show the witness, for purposes of clarity for the court and to further help the court understand what the detective is describing,” Wood said.
Wood then positioned a large printed photo on an easel. It showed an aerial view of Daybell’s property, taken on the day of the search. Hermasillo picked up a laser pointer and used it to show where he’d stood next to Daybell’s Chevy Equinox in the driveway.
“Mr. Daybell was on the phone, sitting in the driver seat. He had the phone in his right hand and was intently, continually looking over his right shoulder,” Hermasillo said. “He would look over his right shoulder for a while, break contact, talk on the phone for a second and then he would continue looking back over his right shoulder.”
Hermasillo said that he later stood in the same place where Daybell had been sitting and looked in the same direction.
“What did you find yourself looking at,” Wood asked.
“The north side of the property at the pond area,” Hermasillo said, using the laser pointer to again point at the aerial photo.
That site would soon become known as burial site one, after investigators unearthed JJ Vallow’s body there. After they did so, Daybell drove south away from the property before being stopped by pursuing officers and arrested.
Seeds Of Doubt
During cross-examination, Daybell’s defense attorney John Prior attempted to cast doubt on Hermasillo’s testimony.
“I’m looking at the tree and the tree has foliage on it,” Prior said. “So it is still your testimony that there’s a visible line of sight between where the automobile was parked and that tree back in the corner where there were remains excavated?”
“I never gave the testimony there was a clear line of sight,” Hermasillo said.
“So he was looking around,” Prior said. “And you can agree with me that it’s somewhat alarming if someone shows up at your property and decides to bring a number of people to start digging up your property.”
Prior went so far as to say he had also stood in the place where Daybell had been parked that June day and that he was unable to see the pond from that position.
Applying The Evidence
Illustrating something as complicated as line of sight can prove difficult or impossible with an overhead still photograph. Forensic models can provide the advantage of perspective, if they are created to a high enough standard of accuracy.
“We will worry about the number of posts on a guardrail,” Johnson said.
For the Daybell property model, Johnson recreated Daybell’s exact vehicle, a second-generation Chevy Equinox, and placed it where Hermasillo testified it’d been: 10 feet directly west of the garage door.
“What you can see from that driver position will vary somewhat depending on the model of that particular car,” Johnson said.
The drone imagery KSL-TV gathered in early July 2020 for use in the creation of the model includes the various trees that were present on the property a month earlier, during the search.
“And to the extent that the foliage matches what was extant in June, we can see what Chad Daybell would have seen when he looked over his shoulder at the pond,” Johnson said. “He wouldn’t be able to see the grave, but he certainly would see the excavator working and he would see the information brought up from the soil.”
Attacking The Model
KSL’s 3D model of the Daybell property was not created with any assistance from law enforcement or the opposing legal teams in the case. It has not been provided to the prosecution or defense. Testimony from Daybell’s FBI’s evidence recovery team did collect a series of extremely precise laser surveying measurements of the Daybell property, but it is unclear what prosecutors might yet do with that data.
Johnson, for one, believes the attorneys working both sides of the Daybell case should be prepared to see forensic visualization in the courtroom.
“Because this type of evidence has become so prevalent, it becomes extremely important to be able to counter it and to expose its flaws and weaknesses,” Johnson said. “Oftentimes we are hired … We spend many hours consulting with the trial team and explaining how they can go at this evidence with hammer and tongs in the courtroom.”
For a defense team, that could mean attacking the credibility of the data used to create such a model. And in a time of deepfakes and digital manipulation, Johnson urged people to be skeptical, even of what a supposedly accurate digital model shows.
“People shouldn’t accept anything because they see it with their eyes. They should insist on proof,” Johnson said. “A good lawyer opposing me should take as many shots as he or she can to try to question the work I’ve done. But if I’ve done my job properly, not only will the jury understand what I did, but the judge will say ‘Yes ladies and gentlemen, this is admitted into evidence. You may consider it during your deliberations.'”