An Idaho judge is expected to decide Monday whether cameras will be allowed in the courtroom next month when Lori Vallow Daybell and Chad Daybell appear for their preliminary hearings. The couple faces felony charges related to the disappearance and deaths of Lori's two children, Joshua "JJ" Vallow and Tylee Ryan, whose remains were found on Chad's property nine months after they were last seen alive.
Prosecutor Rob Wood had filed a motion asking Magistrate Judge Faren Eddins to reconsider his decision to allow cameras in the courtroom, arguing they would violate Chad and Lori's right to a fair trial and that "allowing broadcasting/live-streaming of the preliminary hearing will make it more difficult to pick an un-biased jury in Fremont County," as well as nearby Madison County, where Lori faces additional misdemeanor charges.
"Picking a jury in this case will be difficult and time consuming due to the already existing media coverage," Wood wrote in his July 17 memo. "If the preliminary hearings are broadcast/live streamed, voir dire will become even more difficult. Every potential juror who viewed the preliminary hearing will require extra voir dire, and those questions may elicit answers which prejudice other jurors."
Voir dire is the process by which potential jurors are questioned about any biases or connections they might have to a case that would prevent them from being impartial.
Media coverage of the case has been widespread ever since the Rexburg Police Department asked for the public's help finding JJ, 7, and Tylee, 16, in late December. The siblings were last seen September 22 and September 9, and their disappearance sparked a nationwide search involving multiple law enforcement agencies and the FBI.
Authorities now believe the children were killed shortly after the time they were last seen and buried in Chad's yard by their uncle, Alex Cox. Cox himself died on Dec. 12. An Arizona medical examiner ruled that he died of natural causes, but Cox's death remains under investigation.
Wood wrote he is not arguing for a "closed or sealed hearing, but simply that the preliminary hearing in this case be treated the same as nearly every other preliminary hearing where there are no video cameras in the courtroom." Reporters would still be allowed to report on the hearing using an audio recording or text transcript, and still photography would still be permitted, Wood wrote.
But several media organizations, as well as Chad and Lori's attorneys, have filed objections to Wood's request, arguing that video is necessary at the hearings, especially amid restrictions on courtroom attendance during the coronavirus pandemic.
COVID-19 cases have recently surged in Idaho, but Eddins ruled earlier this month that both Chad and Lori had the right to appear in person for their preliminary hearings. Attendees will be limited in order to practice social distancing, Eddins wrote, and Plexiglas will be used to separate people along the bench and witness stand. Given those restrictions, media organizations have argued that allowing the public to watch the proceedings remotely is crucial.
"That video technology is presently critical to the proper administration of the judicial process cannot reasonably be disputed," Steven Wright, an attorney representing nine media outlets, wrote in his July 24 objection to the camera ban.
The outlets include EastIdahoNews.com, as well as The Post Register, KIFI, KPVI, The Idaho Statesman, KIVI, KSL TV, Court TV and NBC News.
"In the climate of COVID-19, video access to criminal proceedings is much more than a convenience. It is an important means to ensure the Constitutional interests described by our United States Supreme Court are protected," Wright added.
In his objection to banning cameras in the courtroom, Lori's attorney, Mark Means, argued that "the State and/or local law enforcement" "have all appeared on camera and made public statements regarding the above case."
"As a result of these public statements, the local public have reacted with the use of signs, pictures, social media postings, etc., throughout Fremont and Madison County, State of Idaho. The cat appears to be out of the bag when it comes to this motion for reconsideration," Means wrote.
Chad's attorney, John Prior, made a similar argument in his motion, writing that, "I have observed a number of signs and references [sic] to this case in my travels throughout Fremont and Madison County, including the blue ribbons placed at the entrance of the Madison County Courthouse and entrance to the prosecuting attorney's office in Madison County."
Both Means and Prior wrote that the current video camera order should stand, or the public should be allowed to attend the proceedings as the health situation allows.
Chad has been charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit destruction, alteration or concealment of evidence, as well as two felony charges of willfully destroying, concealing or altering evidence after JJ and Tylee's remains were found on his property. Chad has pleaded not guilty and denies all allegations of wrongdoing. He is due to appear in court Aug. 3 and Aug. 4.
Lori has been charged with two felony counts of conspiracy to commit destruction, alteration or concealment of evidence in Fremont County. She is also facing misdemeanor charges of resisting and obstructing an officer, solicitation of a crime and contempt in Madison County. She has pleaded not guilty and denies all allegations of wrongdoing. She is due to appear in court in Fremont County on Aug. 10 and Aug. 11.
Eddins is expected to rule on whether to allow cameras during a hearing set for 2:30 p.m. Monday.
Separately, Lori and Chad are currently under investigation by the Idaho Attorney General's office for "conspiracy, attempted murder and/or murder" in the death of Chad's first wife, Tammy, who died weeks before the couple married.
The Rexburg Police Department asks anyone with information regarding the case to contact them at 208-359-3000.