Defense Paints Sympathetic Portrait of Immigrant in Iowa Murder Trial

A defense lawyer for Cristhian Bahena Rivera acknowledged the state’s grim evidence in her opening statement before seeking to put a human face on her client.

Cristhian Bahena Rivera listens during his murder trial at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport, Iowa, last Wednesday. Rivera is charged with first-degree murder in the death of student Mollie Tibbetts. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette via AP, Pool)

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — After four days of accusations by prosecutors that Cristhian Bahena Rivera murdered University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, defense lawyers began presenting their case Tuesday.

They sought to paint a fuller and more sympathetic portrait of the defendant and his story as an immigrant from Mexico, a young man who was funny and playful with his extended family living in Iowa, and who sent money home to help feed his parents and sisters.

Bahena Rivera, 26, who immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 17, faces life in prison if he is convicted of first-degree murder. He is accused of killing Tibbetts, who was 20 at the time she disappeared on July 18, 2018, while taking an evening jog in her home town of Brooklyn, Iowa. Her body was not found until nearly five weeks later, in a remote cornfield.

Over the first four days of the trial, jurors saw gruesome photos of the scene where Tibbetts’ largely decomposed body was found. They heard how her jogging shorts, sports bra and what appeared to be underwear were found yards from her body. They saw photos of forensic evidence showing multiple stab wounds to Tibbetts’ skull, neck, and rib cage.

Mollie Tibbetts poses for a picture during homecoming festivities at BGM High School in Brooklyn, Iowa, in 2016. (Kim Calderwood via AP, File)

Bahena Rivera’s defense lawyer, Jennifer Frese, did not shy away from the state’s grim evidence in her opening statement to the jury Tuesday before she made a quick segue to a defense of her client.

“You all sat through some very disturbing pictures, some very disturbing testimony,” Frese said. “You saw her body in the decomposed state. Your hearts should break for Mollie Tibbetts. Your hearts should break for her family. Mollie Tibbetts deserves justice. Her family deserves justice. But so does Cristhian Bahena Rivera.”

Frese said that while defense attorneys often do not call witnesses and instead simply rely on the burden of the state to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt, “that’s not what we will do here. We intend to bring you witnesses, and that’s because you need to hear what they have to say.”

She confronted the immigration debate that has loomed over the case for the last three years, in part as a result of comments at the time of Tibbetts’ disappearance by Republican politicians from former President Donald Trump to Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, who played on fears of undocumented immigrants committing violent crimes.

Frese said the immigration issue must be addressed.

“You can agree with it. You can not agree with it. You can be Republican, or you can be Democrat, but the evidence here that you must decide, the evidence here that you must rely on, has nothing to do with that side issue,” she said.

Addressing the jurors, she continued, “Ladies and gentlemen, this case is about a man that immigrated here from Mexico. You will hear about Cristhian’s family circumstances, and the reasons that he decided to come into this country. You’ll hear about the differences in Mexico, that it’s not just $7.25 an hour versus $12 an hour. The difference is between someone that is trying to find employment in Mexico” earning a fraction of what they can make in the United States.

Defense witnesses, including Bahena Rivera’s aunt and former girlfriend, the mother of his child, described Bahena Rivera as “very funny” when he was with his family in Iowa, even though he is quiet and shy with strangers.

His aunt said he asked her to buy him flowers for a date he had in the summer of 2018. He was described as hard-working, having put in 12-hour days on the dairy farm where he worked. He was described as a responsible father who provided financial support to his daughter and her mother. He was said to send money back to family in Mexico, and was said to never be violent with his girlfriend or daughter.

Defense attorneys Jennifer and Chad Frese also questioned expert witnesses Tuesday regarding the state’s evidence against Bahena Rivera, including fingerprints and DNA samples from blood in the trunk of his car, with questions suggesting there may have been other potential suspects who should have been investigated for the Tibbetts murder.

Chad Frese called Tibbetts’ boyfriend, Dalton Jack, to the witness stand and asked about his relationship with Tibbetts, his affair with another woman that created strain in their relationship, and his history of having a volatile temper. It was the second time Jack had been on the stand, the first time as a prosecution witness.

The trial adjourned just before 3 p.m. local time Tuesday. Proceedings will resume Wednesday.

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