Here’s how no death penalty could affect Lori Vallow Daybell trial

Mar 22, 2023, 8:40 AM | Updated: Apr 4, 2023, 3:46 pm

Capital punishment will never be an option for Lori Vallow Daybell.

In an 11th-hour decision, Judge Steven Boyce Tuesday agreed with her attorneys and granted an order they filed to dismiss the death penalty if Vallow Daybell is convicted of the murders of her children, Joshua “JJ” Vallow and Tylee Ryan, and of conspiracy to commit murder against her husband Chad Daybell’s late wife, Tammy Daybell.

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All three died in 2019. Police suspect the children died in September, while Tammy died in October. In June 2020, investigators found the remains of JJ and Tylee, who were 7 and 16 years old when they died, buried in Chad Daybell’s backyard in Salem, Idaho.

In addition to two counts of first-degree murder of her children, and a count of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder of Tammy Daybell, Vallow Daybell faces two counts of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and grand theft By deception, and one grand theft charge in the deaths of JJ and Tylee and subsequent alleged collection of their social security benefits.

“I think a lot of people have expressed some surprise that the death penalty’s been taken off the table,” said Greg Skordas, KSL’s legal analyst who is a defense attorney and former prosecutor.

He explained that the change will have a huge impact on the trial, from changing the way the court selects a jury, to the length of the trial, to what the jury can decide when it comes to Vallow Daybell’s future and potential consequences.

“In a death penalty case, there’s a much more involved process in selecting a jury, because you have to select a jury that understands that to be the law,” Skordas said. That process can take days longer than a normal jury selection. “It also makes the trial much longer, because you have to consider what’s called mitigation and aggravation, for the jury to decide what the punishment would be.”

The jury now will only decide guilt or innocence, with no power on punishment. Skordas indicated this could shorten the trial length by a third — perhaps down to four to six weeks instead of eight to 10 weeks.

While the decision may have come as shock so close to trial, Skordas explained why it’s not all that astounding after hearing Boyce’s reasoning in an audio recording of Tuesday’s court hearing published by East Idaho News.

Boyce explained the concerns cited in the March 5 motion to dismiss. Vallow Daybell’s defense attorneys expressed that they felt media saturation of the case would cause bias in jurors. They also stated that Vallow Daybell’s mental state and potential mental illness should preclude her from the death penalty. The court document questions whether Idaho even has the means to carry out the death penalty.

He spent a great deal of time talking about a fourth point that the attorneys cited — the prosecution missing the deadline for discovery and submitting evidence late. Judge Boyce explained that the evidence included more than 100 hours of previously undisclosed recorded jail phone calls.

“The defense came in fairly recently and said, ‘Look, there have been a number of discovery violations. We’re getting information at the last minute, which puts us in a bit of a difficult situation to prepare for trial,” Skordas said.

Boyce said the prosecution told him it was due to an oversight, and not done on purpose. The prosecution filed an objection to the motion to dismiss the death penalty. But because Vallow Daybell hasn’t waived her right to a speedy trial, he explained that things must continue forward toward the trial’s start date of April 3.

“The defense cannot be required to review that quantity of new discovery only two weeks before jury selection begins,” he said, in the hearing.

As a penalty on the state for the late discovery, Boyce ruled the state can’t seek the death penalty. He clarified that this only impacts Vallow Daybell’s trial. The death penalty is still an option for Chad Daybell, who waived his right to a speedy trial to allow for more time to prepare and review. His trial date hasn’t been set. The couple was originally going to be tried together, but the cases were recently severed.

Daybell is facing the same charges as Vallow Daybell, but without the grand theft and with the added charges of first-degree murder, and two counts of insurance fraud in the death of Tammy Daybell.

While the death penalty decision dramatically changes Vallow Daybell’s trial trajectory, Skordas explained that the end game remains the same.

“We’re still going to have a trial to decide whether or not she’s criminally responsible for the death of those children — whether she’s guilty or not,” Skordas said. “And that’s really the most important part of this.”

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Here’s how no death penalty could affect Lori Vallow Daybell trial