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33. Leave Your Kind Heart on the Ground
For more days than not in the last two weeks, I opened my eyes in a hotel room in Boise, Idaho, chugged a cup of coffee and walked 10 blocks to the Ada County Courthouse. I was there to observe the beginning of a trial I’ve been waiting three years for. On Easter Monday, the doors opened, and in walked jurors and journalists and the generally-interested to see what the justice system would make of Lori Vallow Daybell.
She is the 49-year-old woman at the center of my book, When the Moon Turns to Blood, who is facing charges of conspiracy to commit murder and first-degree murder of her two children, Tylee Ryan and JJ Vallow, and the wife of her now-husband: Tammy Daybell. (She also faces charges of grand theft by deception.) I wanted to be there. I felt like I had to — like I owed that to myself, to readers, to the Gods of Journalism to see the story through to the very end. I wanted to see the faces of the people who would judge her. But also: I wanted to see her.
There are many hurdles facing you, the public, from knowing what’s happening during this trial: some months ago, cameras were yanked from the courtroom. People worldwide watched the high-profile Murdaugh trial unfold, and photographers snapped photos of the former President of the United States when he was arraigned in a New York court. The only images coming out of Lori Vallow Daybell’s trial are those of a sketch artist who totes pens and markers and watercolors into the room, and does her best.
Supposedly we have CourtTV to blame for the lack of transparency in the Lori Vallow case: Vallow’s attorneys argued that during a hearing last August, CourtTV set up a small camera feet away from the defense table, zooming in on Lori’s smiling face and, supposedly, picking up her whispers to her attorneys.
Those attorneys were successful; Judge Steven Boyce agreed with them: “While the right to public access must be protected, the scope of the coverage cannot supersede the rights of all parties to the fair administration of justice in this case,” he wrote. Sensational cases like this create tension “between the right of the accused to trial by an impartial jury and the right guaranteed others by the First Amendment.”
So that was it. Cameras: gone. Recording: gone.
On the first day of jury selection, the public watched the proceedings via Zoom, projected onto a large screen in another courtroom on an entirely different floor of the Ada County Courthouse. The sketch artist peered at the screen, attempting to make an image of an image of the defendant. The jurors were voices, and not faces; the camera did not show who they were.
The mood in that live-streaming room was serious and jittery at first — people had been waiting so long for this. Computer keys clacked, chargers snaking out of plugs in every wall, armed officers watching observers to make sure no one was recording, filming or taking pictures on their phones.
Throughout the day, the Ada County courthouse staff replenished air pots of coffee and told people to help themselves. Someone brought boxes of cookies: heart-shaped, with raspberry jam in the center. It was strange and discordant with my experiences sitting in courtrooms. The wheels of justice turn, and hardly are they genial; maybe this case called for a little kindness.
During jury selection, more than once people who’d been called to serve were asked whether or not they would be able to view autopsy photographs of children and still be able to remain impartial. Would they see those photos, and have such an emotional reaction, they would decide right then and there that Lori Vallow was guilty? More than once, people said “well I don’t want to look at those photos,” and the judge or the attorneys would answer, “well, yeah, sure, no one wants to see photos like that.”
But during the interview of one juror, she answered that she simply could not see photos like that and be impartial. There was no way. It would hurt her too much, leave her damaged. It was impossible. When the judge dismissed her, he thanked her for her kind heart.
As the days went on, and jury selection kept going, I was thinking a lot about kindness. Everything about this trial exists at the opposite end of the spectrum than that word. The mood in the livestreaming room, after days of observing the monotonous process, loosened. Faces became familiar, conversations on breaks happened between strangers. The room of these people, here to watch a murder trial, filled with laughter and chatter. One day, someone placed two boxes of donuts near the pots of coffee. Newspaper writers, TV reporters, court staff, true-crime vloggers: soon we all had crumbs on our faces.
A week later, 60-some people gained access to the courtroom for opening statements after a jury had been seated. I was there, and what I saw on Monday and Tuesday — sitting 15 feet from Lori Vallow — are images I will never forget. Not for as long as I live. I don’t have words for them quite yet, but I will one day describe it for you. It’s just going to take me a little while. I learned something about myself on those days, seeing things I could barely comprehend: that maybe, like that dismissed juror, my heart is just a little too porous. That in a way, it hurt to see them. That maybe to succeed in covering murder trials, you have to leave your kind heart on the ground outside.
Aside from Alex Brizee, the courts reporter for The Idaho Statesman, Alexandra Duggan, a reporter for KPTV in Boise, and the indefatigable Nate Eaton, of East Idaho News, who has dominated every aspect of this case, I cannot say with any degree of certainty that Lori Vallow’s trial will be covered by journalists every day. Should it be covered by more reporters? Yes. I think any trial like this benefits from a wide variety of coverage.
The affair is expected to stretch on for eight to ten weeks — but what outlet can afford to have a reporter devoted to one trial for all of that time? Journalism in the west has been absolutely obliterated in recent years (including this past week, when the Death Star that is Lee Enterprises announced it was laying off even more reporters) and coverage of this trial will suffer because of that lack. Right now, there are so many pressing stories calling for journalists’ attention. No one has the time to write everything that needs to be written.
The reality is that this trial will be most-covered by the true crime community: by bloggers and vloggers and Facebook group moderators and people hired to be there by Discord groups. It will be covered by the same people who know all the details of the Murdaugh trial, and the University of Idaho murders, and myriad other instances of unfathomable violence. There will be no reporter there specializes in extremism — political or religious. For that reason, this case will remain a story of blood and sex, and little more.
This gave me pause. This was the first time I’ve seen up-close the decimation of the industry that I’ve long worked in. When the Bundys went on trial in Oregon, and Nevada, those were trials covered by a variety of journalists: TV, radio, print, but also investigative outlets with historical knowledge of extremist ideologies.
But being there in the courtroom gave me another reason to pause. Looking around the courtroom at all the people who are not reporters, I realized there were this many people who wanted to see Lori Vallow up close, who wanted to see the autopsy photographs of what happened to Tylee, JJ and Tammy. People chose to be there — felt a magnetic pull to bear witness to horror.
I’m still trying to figure out why.
PAID-ONLY VALLOW TRIAL SERIES: If you liked this Vallow-Daybell focused post, I’m going to be doing a whole series of Substack posts on different things that come out of the trial. These will be for paid subscribers only, so please consider subscribing or upgrading your free subscription to paid. After thirty-three straight months of free posts, this will be the first time I’ve done a paid-only series. You know I’m good for it.
TWITTER IS SO DUMB: Elon Musk, as you may have heard, is no longer allowing the sharing of Substack links on his platform, which is really dumb and directly affects writers like me. Will you forward this, or recommend it, to a friend who likes weird writing and essays? Here, click this button:
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COME SAY HI: I plan to be seriously nerd-out about writing at two upcoming events this month, and then plan to return to my dark cave of introversion for awhile: From April 19-22, I’ll be up in Spokane, Washington at the 25th Annual Get Lit! Festival, talking about non-fiction and telling you why none of your writing ideas are dumb. And on April 29, I’ll be talking about “Writing the Weird West” at Newberg, Oregon's Terroir Creative Writing Festival.