Chad Daybell lawyer can’t withdraw from Idaho murder case

Chad Daybell follows attorney John Prior into court for a hearing in 2023.

Chad Daybell follows attorney John Prior into court for a hearing in 2023. file photo

Chad Daybell’s lawyer will remain on his client’s case after a judge denied a motion Thursday by the attorney to withdraw.

John Prior has been Daybell’s defense attorney since May 2021 after a grand jury indicted Daybell and his wife, Lori Vallow Daybell, on murder and conspiracy to commit murder charges for the deaths of JJ Vallow and Tylee Ryan — two of Lori’s kids — and Daybell’s first wife, Tammy Daybell. Chad Daybell is also charged with two counts of insurance fraud in relation to Tammy Daybell’s life insurance policies.

Prosecutors filed their intent to pursue the death penalty in Daybell’s case in August 2021. Prior has solely represented his client since being hired nearly three years ago.

Prior argued he wanted to stay on the case but needed to withdraw because he was not a death penalty-qualified attorney, did not have enough time to prepare for trial and Daybell could no longer afford to pay him.

“I came to realize in late December that the amount of work I’m going to need to do before the trial on April 1 could not get done,” Prior told District Judge Steven Boyce. “I don’t desire to get off this case. I want to stay on this case regardless of Mr. Daybell’s financial situation.”

Prior noted he could “care less” about money but then said he believed he should get paid for his services and insisted Daybell wanted him to get paid.

“Mr. Daybell agrees with me that it’s not fair to me if I don’t get paid,” Prior said. “If the court denies my motion, I’m prepared to go forward and push this case to the end, and I’m committed to that. Do I think it’s fair I don’t get paid? No. Do I want to get paid? I absolutely want to get paid for the work that I do.”

Prior’s other argument focused on the fact that he was not a death penalty qualified attorney. He told Boyce he had tried to find lawyers in Idaho and other states who were qualified to assist him in the death penalty case but had been unsuccessful.

In Idaho, a defendant facing the death penalty is allowed to hire private attorneys of their choosing, even if those lawyers don’t have any experience in capital cases. But a court-appointed attorney must be death penalty certified.

“If I don’t get assistance from another attorney to help me in this case, I don’t have any choice other than to withdraw. The primary reason is there is no mechanism that allows Mr. Daybell to get additional assistance unless I withdraw,” Prior said.

Boyce questioned Prior on if he truly was ready for trial and had a mitigation specialist in place. A mitigation specialist “speaks for the dignity and value of those who have committed even the worst criminal acts,” according to the National Legal Aid & Defender Association. In death penalty cases, a mitigation specialist tells the defendant’s story to the jury to advocate for their life.

Prior said he did not want to discuss his trial strategy and asked to go into a sealed hearing. The courtroom was cleared, and after 30 minutes, the public hearing resumed with Fremont County Prosecuting Attorney Lindsey Blake arguing against the motion to withdraw.

She recalled that during a hearing in January 2023, Prior asked for additional help, and Boyce said state funding could be available to pay for another attorney if one was brought onto the defense team.

“Here we are a year later, and for the first time, this issue is being brought up that, ‘Hey, I want to withdraw because I’m not getting paid and I’d have to work all the time to get it done,’” Blake said. “Now the victims’ families have to wait much longer, and the state has to absorb additional cost.”

Blake mentioned Prior fought to have Chad Daybell’s trial severed from Lori Daybell’s last March because he was awaiting additional DNA testing on evidence. Prior then attended Lori Daybell’s trial almost every day in Ada County.

“He was able to watch the trial and got a year-long continuance to test the DNA and then after the trial said, ‘I’m not going to test the DNA,’” Blake said. “It was very frustrating that we ended up having a continuance for something that never ended up being tested.”

Boyce expressed frustration that Prior filed his motion less than three months before the murder trial was scheduled to start.

“None of this is new at all. The co-defendant (Lori Daybell) went through an entire trial that you observed. We talked about these concerns a year ago, and here we are on the doorstep of trial and you’re saying you’re not prepared,” Boyce said. “During a hearing a year ago, you said, ‘There is going to be no continuance because I’m asking to get out of this case — that will not happen.’”

After taking a brief break, the judge denied Prior’s motion and said that if it was granted, the trial would not happen for at least a year or even longer.

“The motion, if granted, would absolutely require a continuance of the trial and not just a brief continuance,” Boyce said. “Idaho has a sparse number of (death penalty-qualified) attorneys … and Idaho is currently experiencing a lot of cases resulting in the appointment of available attorneys. I don’t have any idea of who would be appointed, but what I do know is the trial would have to be vacated and continued likely for a long time.”

Boyce noted that Daybell was happy with Prior and wanted him to remain as his attorney, but if Prior could find another lawyer to assist him, the state could help pay the costs.

Daybell has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Lori Daybell was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without parole last summer. She is in Arizona on charges of conspiracy to commit murder of Charles Vallow, her fourth husband, and Brandon Boudreaux, her former nephew-in-law. Once court proceedings are done in Arizona, she will return to Idaho to serve her life sentence.

This story was originally published January 20, 2024, 12:11 PM.

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