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What to know as Chad Daybell's 'zombie' murder trial begins in Idaho

Chad Daybell listens during a court hearing in 2022. His trial on murder, conspiracy and fraud charges began on Monday, with jury selection in Boise, Idaho.
Tony Blakeslee
/
EastIdahoNews.com via AP, Pool
Chad Daybell listens during a court hearing in 2022. His trial on murder, conspiracy and fraud charges began on Monday, with jury selection in Boise, Idaho.

Updated April 10, 2024 at 6:30 AM ET

A jury of 12 people, plus 6 alternates, is set to hear Chad Daybell's trial on murder charges at the Ada County Courthouse in Boise, Idaho. Opening arguments were slated to begin on Wednesday.

Prosecutors accuse Daybell of making outlandish claims about the end times and people becoming zombies to justify a string of heinous crimes, including the killing of two children.

Daybell has previously pleaded not guilty. He faces similar murder and conspiracy charges as his wife, Lori Vallow Daybell — who was sentenced to multiple life terms in prison last year, for murdering two of her children and conspiring to murder Daybell's previous wife, Tammy Daybell.

Here's a quick guide to the case:

How to watch the Chad Daybell trial

The trial is expected to be a lengthy one, possibly lasting as long as two months or more. It's being overseen by District Judge Steven Boyce, who also handled Vallow Daybell's trial.

Because of intense interest in the murder case, the trial is being livestreamed on the judge's YouTube channel.

Court proceedings are also open to the public, as long as they snag a reservation online: No seats have been designated for the media, and spots for the next court day open daily at 8:30 a.m. local time.

Charges aren't identical to Vallow Daybell's

Chad Daybell and Lori Vallow Daybell were indicted together in May of 2021; their cases were split at Daybell's request. His attorneys cited, in part, the "mutually antagonistic nature of the defendants' positions."

Some of the accusations are different. Daybell, 55, faces a first-degree murder charge in Tammy Daybell's death in October of 2019. Lori Vallow Daybell was charged with conspiracy in that death.

Chad Daybell is also charged with two counts of insurance fraud. Prosecutors say he maxed out his then-wife's life insurance policy the month before she died, with himself as a beneficiary. Less than a month after her death, he married Lori Vallow Daybell in Hawaii.

If found guilty, Daybell could face the death penalty — a punishment that would be up to the jury to decide, prompting attorneys to ask potential jurors their views on the death penalty as well as the case.

Vallow Daybell didn't face the prospect of the death penalty — her lawyers successfully argued for removing the death penalty from her case, and the judge agreed, calling it a "discovery sanction" for the prosecution's late sharing of large amounts of evidence shortly before her trial.

The children's bodies were found in 2020

A jury found Vallow Daybell guilty of killing her two youngest children, Tylee Ryan and Joshua Jaxon "JJ" Vallow. Tylee was nearly 17 when she and JJ, 7, were last seen alive in September 2019 — the same month they had moved with their mother from Chandler, Ariz., to Rexburg, Idaho. The children's bodies were found in June 2020, buried on property in Rexburg owned by Chad Daybell.

Photos from the scene, shown at last year's trial, were horrific and heart-wrenching. At Vallow Daybell's sentencing, Boyce said she had chosen "the most evil and destructive path possible" in pursuing a new life with Chad Daybell.

While the couple honeymooned in Hawaii, the judge said, the two children were left in shallow graves in Idaho — "burned, mutilated and dismembered, and buried like animals."

Prosecutors said Vallow Daybell didn't report her children missing, and that for months after their deaths, she kept collecting benefit payments on their behalf.

Vallow Daybell was also found guilty of conspiring to murder Tammy Daybell, a librarian and educator who was found dead in her home at age 49. Tammy's death was initially attributed to natural causes, but prosecutors said it was later ruled an asphyxiation after her body was exhumed for an autopsy.

What role do religious beliefs play?

"I have found in my own reporting that Lori Vallow and Chad Daybell really existed at the fringes, the far right fringes of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," journalist and writer Leah Sottile told member station Boise State Public Radio, "and that they ... kind of were able to meet because of this ecosystem of extremism that exists there."

During Vallow Daybell's trial, Fremont County Prosecutor Lindsey Blake told jurors that Chad Daybell and Lori Vallow Daybell portrayed themselves as religious figures called "James and Elaina."

Vallow Daybell and Daybell met in the fall of 2018 — a time when both of them were married to other people.

Melanie Gibb, a confidante of Vallow Daybell's, testified last year that she watched her friend become increasingly involved with Chad Daybell, with the pair telling her that they had been married in a previous life. They spoke of being joined for eternity and leading 144,000 people in the end times, as described in the Book of Revelation, Gibb said.

Gibb said the couple also shared beliefs about people being overtaken by dark, evil energy. Thecriminal indictment cites text messages between the pair "regarding death percentages for Tammy" Daybell, as well as messages about her being in limbo, and Tammy "being possessed by a spirit named Viola."

Chad Daybell told Vallow Daybell his theories about zombies in early 2019, Gibb said in a 2020 probable cause affidavit from Rexburg, Idaho, police detective Ron Ball. In their eyes, a person who has been taken over by dark spirits could only be released through physical death, Ball stated.

Prosecutors say the couple used their fantastical beliefs as pretexts to remove people from their lives — and profit from their deaths.

Vallow's late brother is also named

The indictment's conspiracy murder charges also name Alex Cox, Lori Vallow's late brother. Months after Chad Daybell spoke to Lori Vallow about people becoming zombies, Cox shot and killed his sister's fourth husband, Charles Vallow, in Arizona — where Lori Vallow Daybell currently faces charges over the death.

Cox claimed he acted in self-defense after an argument on July 11, 2019. But Maricopa County prosecutors allege that Lori Vallow planned the killing, saying her motive was two-fold: to marry Daybell and get a payout from a $1 million life insurance policy.

Charles Vallow had previously told police that his wife threatened to kill him, stating, "I can murder you now, with my powers."

A week after Vallow's death, Lori Vallow Daybell sent a text to Chad Daybell about his insurance policy, expressing her shock that she wasn't the beneficiary, according to police testimony during last year's trial cited by East Idaho News.

Three months later, prosecutors allege, Alex Cox tried to shoot Tammy Daybell at her home in eastern Idaho. They also say that on the night Daybell died unexpectedly, Alex was spotted in a parking lot about 2.5 miles away.

In December of 2019, Alex Coxalso died; a medical examiner concluded that he died of natural causes.

Rules are set for a high-profile trial

Attorneys for both sides have also told the judge they believe some of their prospective witnesses plan to watch or listen to the trial with the intention of being precluded from testifying in court. In response, Boyce ordered the witnesses not to watch testimony — and he told attorneys to share the names of anyone they suspect might do it anyway.

The defense and prosecution were ordered not to speak about the Chad Daybell case outside of court until opening statements are made. That order came after Daybell's defense attorney, John Prior, recently discussed the case in an interview with local TV station KIVI.

"At this point, we're ready to go forward and he wants to tell his story," Prior said of his client. He also praised the judge for moving the trial to its current location.

"One of the main reasons I'm grateful is I know the folks in Ada County," Prior said. "I've spent better than half my life living here."

As he issued his gag order, Boyce said that lawyers making remarks to the media "could potentially taint or influence" a prospective juror.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.