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Lori Vallow pleads not guilty in murder case

The mother of J.J. Vallow and Tylee Ryan could face the death penalty if convicted of the most serious charges against her.

ST ANTHONY, Idaho — An eastern Idaho mother accused in the murder of her two children stood silent in court Tuesday afternoon, signaling a judge to enter not-guilty pleas on her behalf to all six felony charges.

Lori Vallow could face the death penalty if convicted of the most serious charges against her. She's charged under an indictment issued in May 2021 with two counts of criminal conspiracy, two counts of first-degree murder, one count of conspiracy to commit murder, and one count of grand theft.

Investigators say her end-of-times beliefs led to the deaths of 7-year-old JJ Vallow and 16-year-old Tylee Ryan, who she allegedly told others had turned into zombies or become possessed by evil spirits. 

The remains of the children were found in June 2020, buried on the Fremont County property of Lori Vallow's new husband, Chad Daybell.

Daybell is also charged in the children's deaths, as well as the murder of his late wife Tammy Daybell, who was found dead the month before he and Vallow wed. 

The arraignment marked the first in-person appearance for Vallow in more than a year. She was previously found mentally unfit to stand trial, a designation lifted earlier this month

She entered the courtroom Tuesday afternoon wearing a powder blue blouse and matching eyeglasses, answering the judge's questions about whether she understood her rights in a soft voice. 

Vallow's defense attorneys told the judge that she would not waive her right to a speedy trial, an unusual move in a homicide case. Under Idaho law, that means prosecutors have a deadline of six months - or roughly until mid-October to bring the case to trial.

Credit: FBI
Photo of 7-year-old JJ Vallow, 17-year-old Tylee Ryan, and their uncle Alex Cox.

Judge Steven Boyce previously ruled that Vallow and Daybell be tried together, which could force officials to move Daybell's trial back from its planned date in January. Boyce announced in court that he will confer with prosecutors and attorneys for both defendants before setting an official trial date later this week.

Kay Woodcock, the grandmother of J.J., said after the hearing that it was "unnerving" to see Vallow in person. 

"I honestly thought I wouldn't feel anything, but I couldn't have been more wrong," she said, as she began to cry. "I look at her and think 'I love her, I trusted her. I trusted her with our life.'"

"With our baby, with my little man," J.J.'s grandfather Larry Woodcock agreed. "It's senseless. It doesn't make sense. And she knew all she had to do was call us."

In a separate hearing earlier Tuesday morning, Daybell's defense lawyer argued that the trial should be held in Boise at the Ada County Courthouse, while the prosecution tried to convince the judge to bus an Ada County jury up to Fremont County in order to hold the proceeding in St. Anthony, a town of about 3,500. 

Bringing the jury to St. Anthony would require them to be sequestered in a hotel, guarded by security around the clock and barred from access to their phones and electronic devices over the course of the trial, estimated to last ten weeks.

Boyce had already ruled that the jury be pulled from a pool of Ada County residents, accepting the defense argument that the immense public interest and media attention on the case would make it near-impossible to assemble an unbiased jury in Fremont County.

Prosecutor Rachel Smith argued in court that holding the trial in Ada County would run up a massive bill for Fremont County to provide transportation, lodging, and food for detectives and other witnesses in the case, as well as leave the Fremont County Courthouse and Rexburg Police Department shorthanded as many of their senior officers are tied up 300 miles away for weeks at a time. 

Rexburg Police Chief Shane Turman testified it would cost about $231 per day per person - not including transportation - to pay for food, lodging and hotels for officers and other personnel to attend the trial in Boise. 

Twelve witnesses would need to be there every day for ten weeks at that rate, he said, with three more present for five weeks, and 35 people for one week. 

Keeping the case in Fremont County will save on those costs, the prosecutor said.

“Trying it in Fremont County is the best thing all around, especially with the economic impact," Smith argued. “This is where these people died. This is where these people were killed and buried. This is where the trial needs to be.”

Credit: KTVB
Chad Daybell

Defense attorney John Prior, however, argued that holding jurors in a hotel far from home would turn them “into prisoners” and open them up to the risk of being manipulated or intimidated by members of the public holding protests or vigils about the case. He also accused the prosecution of intentionally inflating the cost estimates of moving the trial.

“I don’t agree with any of the numbers they submitted," Prior said. "Frankly, I think they’re padding all of them.”

Ultimately, however, he argued, the cost of the proceeding pales in comparison to Daybell's right to a fair trial in a death-penalty case. 

James Archibald, Lori Vallow's attorney, agreed, saying he also believed the case should be moved to Ada County. 

"If they choose to file the death penalty, they have to be ready to pay for it," Archibald said. 

Boyce indicated that he would take the arguments into consideration and issue a written ruling sometime later. 

Standing in the blowing wind outside the courthouse, Larry Woodcock described his grief at losing his grandson - "do I miss J.J.? Oh my God, you have no idea how I miss J.J." - and said he was looking forward to the end of the case, whenever that may be. 

"Her day will come, and I will accept however it comes," he said. "It don't make me no difference. She will have a miserable life."

Watch more on the case of JJ Vallow and Tylee Ryan:

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