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Idaho judge considers whether to move Chad Daybell’s murder trial

A booking photo shows Chad Daybell
A booking photo shows Chad Daybell, who was arrested Tuesday, June 9, 2020. He is charged with murdering his new wife’s two children. Their bodies were uncovered at his home in Salem, Idaho. Now a judge is considering whether to move his trial out of Fremont County.
Rexburg Police Department via AP

An Idaho judge on Tuesday said he will take under advisement a motion to move Chad Daybell’s murder trial somewhere outside of rural Fremont County.

Judge Steven W. Boyce expressed concern about the publicity the high-profile, potential death penalty case has generated, saying it could diminish the ability of potential jurors to separate information received during the trial from information they have previously heard from media reports.

“While there is an argument maybe that the publicity has been accurate ... at some point an overwhelming quantity may be something that could lead to that issue,” Boyce said.

Chad Daybell, along with his wife Lori Vallow Daybell, are accused of murdering Lori Daybell’s two children, 7-year-old Joshua “JJ” Vallow and 16-year-old Tylee Ryan, in actions related to their apocalyptic beliefs. Lori’s case is currently on hold while she is staying at a mental health facility after the court determined she is not competent to stand trial at this point.

Chad Daybell’s attorney, John Prior, is asking that jurors in the upcoming murder trial be selected from outside Fremont County so that jurors will be less likely to already have opinions and be prejudiced by the publicity of the case. Prior suggested that the trial be held in Boise, but also offered Twin Falls and Pocatello as alternatives.

Prior called the media attention in the case “outrageous” and said the case has received more attention than any other he is familiar with. He said a combination of this media attention, letters he submitted to the court to review, community vigils, signs, ribbons at courthouses, and businesses referencing the case in products and memorabilia, have led to prejudice among residents of the county.

Prosecutor Rob Wood said the state disagrees with the motion. He is concerned there will be additional costs associated with moving the trial to a different venue.

Although he agreed there has been significant news coverage of the case, Wood said the publicity alone should not lead to a change in venue and argued that the defense attorney should be required to provide proof that individuals in the county are prejudiced by calling them as witnesses or submitting affidavits.

“The case law is clear that press coverage itself does not create a presumption of prejudice,” Wood said. “They’re not fortunate facts, they’re not good facts, they’re not fun, they’re disturbing, but accurate representation in the media, absent of showing the prejudice, it should not be enough.”

The judge asked about the possibility of attempting to find a jury within the county before changing the venue, but Prior argued that it could be costly, especially if it took weeks to pick a jury and then a determination was made afterward that it should be moved.

Portions of Tuesday’s hearing were closed to the public, because Boyce said the proposed exhibits were considered “inflammatory.” The judge denied a motion to seal the entire hearing — which was filed by the prosecutor — and said that closing the hearing entirely would be a “remedy of last resort.” Instead, the judge asked the parties to request a section that would be closed to the public for specific witnesses or exhibits.

The judge declined to consider a survey presented by Daybell’s attorney that asked residents in four counties, including Fremont County, about their thoughts on the Daybell case. The survey was conducted by phone and internet among registered voters who would be eligible for jury duty. The survey found that 82.4% of residents believe the couple is guilty, and less than 1% — only one participant — believes they are innocent.

Since only 18 of the 177 who responded were from Fremont County, the judge determined it could not accurately reflect the results from Fremont County. Boyce said the survey might be applicable later if there is a discussion about whether jurors need to be found from outside the court district where the case is currently being held, as all four counties are within Idaho’s 7th District.

Fremont County Sheriff Len Humphries and Rexburg Police Chief Shane Turman testified Tuesday about the possible costs of holding a trial outside of the county, including the cost of detectives traveling to testify in the case. Humphries said that it would be more economical for the sheriff’s office if the trial were held inside the county. Turman expressed concerns about having his detectives away from their typical duties.

The judge also granted a motion to continue the discussion over whether a jury should be sequestered when the trial begins. That issue will be considered after the court decides whether a local jury will be able to provide Daybell with a fair trial. As Prior argued, the costs for sequestering a jury would be different based on where the jury trial is ultimately held.