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Lori Vallow Found Incompetent to Stand Trial

Was it a psychotic break or a planned defense?

Courtesy of Rexburg, Idaho Police Department
Lori Vallow Daybell
Source: Courtesy of Rexburg, Idaho Police Department

Chad Daybell and Lori Vallow have been recently charged with murder. Thousands of people have watched this case unfold since her two children, 7-year-old JJ Vallow and 16-year-old Tylee Ryan, went missing in September 2019. In June 2020, the children's remains were found buried in the pet cemetery next to a fire pit on Chad Daybell’s property. JJ and Tylee were not the only alleged victims of these lovebirds; since 2018, at least four other people have mysteriously died. An Idaho grand jury, convinced that Chad and Lori had a hand in several of these deaths, recently handed down nine felony counts, including multiple first-degree murder charges, conspiracy to commit murder charges, or both in the death of Lori’s then-husband Charles, Chad’s then-wife Tammy, and Lori’s two children.

However, within a day, another turn of events sparked speculation and outrage. A psychologist, asked by the defense team to conduct a psychological evaluation on Lori Vallow, found her incompetent to stand trial and recommended restorative treatment. The reactions were swift and harsh: “She’s faking.” “This is total BS. She knows how to work the system.” “She gets to play the insanity card. Please don’t let her get out; she’ll just do it again.” There was criticism of the judge, vicious comments about the defense team, incendiary remarks about the evaluating psychologist.

Incompetent Is Not Insane

I think there are a couple of reasons for the intensity of this response. First, this case was in the public eye for months before the children were found. We watched JJs grandparents plead for his return. We saw Lori’s oldest son, Colby, bewildered, wanting to believe the best in his mom, and begging his mom to do right. We saw images of newlyweds Chad and Lori, laughing and dancing on the beach in Hawaii, refusing to answer questions about her missing children. By the time we knew the tragic end of the story, many of us felt like we knew these beautiful kids. And, let’s be honest, we hated the two who appeared responsible.

But there is confusion about what this opinion means. First, incompetent to stand trial is a “here and now” assessment while insanity looks at the person’s state of mind when they committed the crime. To be competent to stand trial just means the person is able to understand the legal process—the role of the judge, the charges against her, the right to call and question witnesses—and to assist in their own defense.

The bar is pretty low; anyone who’s watched a TV courtroom drama understands how this stuff works. This only comes into play when you have a defendant who was born with severe intellectual deficits or has a history of organic brain damage secondary to a head injury. I once evaluated a defendant who had committed a felony and, while out on bail, was involved in a car accident that left him in a coma for three months and, when he woke up, irreparably impaired. When I evaluated him two years later, it was clear that, due to his ongoing concentration and memory problems, he was unable to understand or participate in the legal process, nor was he going to be able to do so in the foreseeable future.

This scenario clearly has nothing to do with Lori Vallow. However, the second prong of the incompetency standard could. Not only must the defendant have a factual understanding of the legal process; s/he must also be able to rationally make decisions in his or her own best interest. A person who rejects a plea deal because they believe the odds are in their favor at trial is making a logical decision; a person who rejects a plea deal because auditory hallucinations are commanding them to plead guilty or because they believe their attorney is in cahoots with a conspiracy against them, is not. A person who successfully pleads insanity might avoid conviction (although not in Idaho, which is one of only four states to outlaw the insanity plea) while an incompetency ruling gives you a time out until you are mentally fit to be held accountable for your actions. Sooner or later, you are going to face the music.

What Are the Odds?

It is possible that Lori Vallow’s mental health in jail is deteriorating. I’ve seen more than one defendant who, faced with the consequences of what s/he had done and the stress of incarceration, began to unravel. Suspend disbelief for a moment and imagine this scenario. Assume that Lori Vallow has been suffering from a genuine mental illness for months before anyone died and her symptoms included the delusion that the people who died were not the people she once knew and loved but were, in fact, “zombies” who had taken over their bodies.

Now, months have passed and the July 2, 2020 date of the anticipated second coming has come and gone. With time on her hands and away from others who shared those beliefs, she begins to realize that she has killed flesh-and-blood loved ones and salvation is not going to save her from the consequences. It’s not hard to imagine this might loosen anyone’s grip on reality. In addition, while the extremely close timing of the murder charges and incompetency ruling aroused understandable suspicion and skepticism, it has since come out that the defense attorney asked for this evaluation on March 8th, weeks before the grand jury handed down their indictment.

I haven’t evaluated Lori Vallow nor have I read the competency evaluation. My thoughts are based on what people closest to her have said and what is public knowledge. Based on that, while the above scenario is possible, it’s not likely. When we compare Lori Vallow to other incompetent defendants, she doesn’t seem to fit. For example, a 2011 study looked at 68 studies from 1967 to 2008 and found that defendants who were deemed incompetent were more likely to have a pre-existing diagnosis of a severe mental illness (most commonly, schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder), to have a history of multiple psychiatric hospitalizations, and to be unemployed and unmarried. These were defendants with a history of functional impairment—they had trouble keeping a job, forming relationships, and so forth. There are a lot of people in Lori Vallow’s life who talked about her strange beliefs and bizarre theories, but they all seem to agree that, even as her beliefs grew more extreme, she was picking up the kids from school, cooking, going to the temple, and carrying on a hot and heavy romance with Chad. She was also engaged in a lot of purposeful deception.

The Bottom Line

One thing all forensic psychologists have to consider when evaluating a criminal defendant is the possibility of faking. In part two, we'll take a look at what that might look like and what is in store for Ms. Vallow if her incompetency ruling stands.


If you're interested in forensic psychology or true crime, check out my website and youtube channel. You might also enjoy my new book, Serial Killers: 101 Questions True Crime Fans Ask.