Over the last week, an Idaho jury has heard prosecutors argue that Lori Vallow killed her two children and her husband’s former wife—and that her doomsday-focused faith allegedly fueled the 2019 slayings, which they say were premeditated.
But legal experts tell The Daily Beast that the decision to showcase how Vallow’s long-held beliefs in a renegade branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—which took an extremist turn after meeting her husband, Chad Daybell—may prove to be a double-edged sword for the prosecution.
“I think it was a mistake for the prosecution to focus on the religion aspect,” Janet Johnson, a criminal defense attorney who is not associated with the case, said on Monday. “I think the theme they opened with is that she was motivated by money, power, and sex and not open the door to sympathy or a possible insanity defense.”
Prosecutors allege that Vallow, 49, and her husband murdered her two children, 7-year-old Joshua “JJ” Vallow and 17-year-old Tylee Ryan, in September 2019 before burying their bodies in Daybell’s backyard. About a month later, prosecutors allege, the couple conspired to fatally strangle Daybell’s first wife, Tammy Daybell, for an insurance and social security payout before moving to Hawaii and getting married.
Vallow, who is standing trial alone after Daybell’s legal team asked to separate their cases, has pleaded not guilty to several charges. She faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.
Legal experts previously told The Daily Beast that the decision to separate the cases may prove to benefit Vallow as her team sets out to convince a jury that she is not responsible for the grisly crimes. Daybell, a former grave digger turned Mormon apocalyptic novelist, is set to stand trial after Vallow and faces the death penalty.
Already the defense is trying to push against the prosecution’s allegations against Vallow—and paint her as a “kind and loving mother” with some countercultural ideals.
“The evidence will show Lori had an interest in religion—especially the end of times,” defense lawyer Jim Archibald said during opening statements last week. “Some people could care less about biblical prophecies, some people care a lot about it. Thankfully in this country, we get the freedom to choose.”
Throughout the first week of trial, however, prosecutors seemed to hone in on Vallow’s religion—calling her former sister-in-law and one-time best friend to the stand to discuss the mother’s faith, which was filled with apocalyptic scenarios, fears of zombies, and the belief that she and Daybell were set to be leaders for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
Carole Lieberman, a forensic psychiatrist who has previously testified in murder trials, believes the decision to bring in Vallow and Daybell’s religion early is a strategic move because it leaves the defense with few options for their case.
“He had chosen [Vallow] to be his wife and they had already been seven times before on this earth…”
“The defense attorneys in Lori Vallow Daybell’s case have an uphill battle,” Lieberman told The Daily Beast. “The question is whether Lori truly believed these ideas or whether she was just pretending to believe them in order to use them as an excuse to get rid of people who were making it less convenient for her to go off into the sunset with Chad Daybell.”
Johnson noted that it would be a “losing argument” to try to convince jurors that Vallow’s beliefs are “normal” and stressed that the best counter-argument would be to focus the blame on Daybell and her mental health.
“Probably the most famous cult murders are the [Charles] Manson girls, but in those cases, the defendants were still under Manson’s influence and were not willing to point the finger at Manson,” the defense attorney said, noting that it may have been a mistake for Vallow’s defense attorney to tell the jury last week “they are only to focus on Lori’s actions, not on Chad’s.”
The defense, however, may pivot their argument after last week’s testimony.
Melanie Gibb, who met Vallow at a church event in 2018, detailed to jurors on the stand how her former friend’s religious beliefs intensified after she met Daybell at a Utah conference. At the first meeting, Gibb said, Vallow revealed that she and Daybell were meant to be together despite already being married to other people.
Gibb also explained how Vallow believed she and Daybell were among the 144,000 people who would be on Earth when Jesus Christ returned. Soon, she said, Vallow began to preach about a light and dark scale—and that if a person had turned “dark” they would become a “zombie.”’
“When Lori met Chad, she was smitten and willing to do whatever it took to snare him. Chad felt the same,” Lieberman said. “So, it was easy for them to [allegedly] use their quasi-delusions to kill and to convince others to do the dirty work.”
Vallow would eventually reveal that she believed her former husband, Charles, one of her brothers, and two of her children were considered “dark.” Charles Daybell was ultimately killed by Lori’s brother, Alex Cox, in July 2019—who claimed self-defense before he died of a blood clot months later.
Zulema Pastenes, who was briefly married to Cox, also described the religion she once shared with Vallow and Daybell in detail on the stand. She testified that Vallow would boast to her friends that she was visited by Jesus Christ and that she believed her two children had been “possessed” and “attacked” by demons before their death. Vallow also allegedly told Pastenes how to “dispel” or “cast out” a “possessed person”—and how Daybell would describe himself as an important acolyte in their religious community.
“Chad claimed he had been [the] heavenly father and Jesus and Holy Ghost,” Pastenes said. “He would have been spiritually the highest of anybody…He had chosen [Vallow] to be his wife and they had already been seven times before on this earth… That was his companion and therefore put her in the same spiritual standing.”
Notably, Vallow’s team cannot plead insanity in this case because the state of Idaho does not have a formal defense for it after it was repealed in 1982. A potential mental illness, however, could still be used as a factor in sentencing.
Johnson said that for Vallow to prevail in court her team will need to convince a jury that she is not a doomsday zealot who believed she was a prophetess—but just very mentally ill.
“The case was already put on hold because Vallow was found incompetent to stand trial,” Johnson noted. “Because she and Daybell are being tried separately, her team can point to Daybell as a Svengali who preyed on Vallow, getting her to do what she would not have done without her mental illness and his influence.”