DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – A 20-year-old University of Iowa student went for an evening run in her hometown and did not return home. For five weeks the family’s desperate search for Mollie Tibbetts drew national attention, but the story took an ugly turn when Tibbetts’ lifeless body was found hidden in a cornfield and a Mexican immigrant was accused of her murder.
Suddenly the focus – in Iowa and the nation – shifted to the immigration debate as politicians from the president of the United States to the governor of Iowa as well as voices on cable news and social media seized the opportunity to connect the dots between the tragic death of a young woman and a sinister threat posed by illegal immigration.
The message: But for this nation’s failure to secure its borders, Tibbetts would be alive today. The implication is that Cristhian Bahena Rivera, the 24-year-old dairy-farm worker who immigrated to the United States at the age of 17, is guilty even before he’s been given a chance to stand trial.
“The search for Mollie is over, but the demand for justice has just begun,” Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds said in a statement released after Tibbetts’ body was discovered last week.
The question is whether the demand will be for justice or for vengeance.
An important step was skipped over in this dot-connecting: The cherished American principle that a person accused of a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
At a political rally in West Virginia the night Tibbetts’ death was announced, President Donald Trump said, “You heard about today with the illegal alien coming in, very sadly, from Mexico and you saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful young woman. Should’ve never happened.”
Governor Reynolds proclaimed that Iowans “are heartbroken, and we are angry. We are angry that a broken immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community, and we will do all we can to bring justice to Mollie’s killer.”
Two days later, Iowa Congressman Steve King, another Republican, put the immigration angle in perhaps the starkest terms in a Twitter post referring to a video showing Tibbetts and 12 other alleged murder victims: “I know the faces of the parents of half the children pictured below. Every victim below would be alive today if we enforced our immigration laws. Leftists sacrificed thousands, including their own, on the altar of Political Correctness.”
This is the politically charged environment in which Rivera’s lawyers must seek to give their client a fair trial.
Rivera’s first attorney, Allan Richards of Tama, Iowa, initially sought to erect a wall of secrecy around the proceedings, moving to close all hearings related to Rivera’s prosecution and impose a gag order preventing government prosecutors from referring to Rivera as an illegal immigrant.
Richards referred to politicians’ reaction in his motion, saying, “Sad and sorry Trump has weighed in on this matter in national media which will poison the entire possible pool of jury members.”
State Magistrate Judge Diane Crookham-Johnson denied the motion to close Rivera’s initial appearance in the Poweshiek County District Courthouse in Montezuma, and Richards subsequently withdrew as Rivera’s attorney at the request of Rivera’s family in Iowa.
Marshalltown lawyers Jennifer and Chad Frese, a married couple, were retained by the family to replace Richards, and they withdrew the motions for closed hearings and a gag order and waived Rivera’s right to make an initial appearance on Aug. 31. The next step will be for the Poweshiek County Attorney to file a charging document called a trial information, which will come within 45 days of the initial appearance.
At that point, Rivera will enter a plea. Meanwhile, he is being held on $5 million cash bond.
According to the criminal complaint filed in state court, Rivera told Poweshiek County authorities he followed Tibbetts as she was running, parked his car and ran behind her. He said Tibbetts threatened to call police on her cell phone, which made him angry. Rivera told authorities he “blocked” his memory of what happened next but that he remembered dragging the body into a cornfield and covering her with corn leaves.
Rivera led authorities to the cornfield where her body was found.
One of his attorneys, Jennifer Frese, told Courthouse News in an interview Tuesday that the intense national media coverage of the Tibbetts’ murder will not change the approach to defending her client.
“I do a lot of criminal defense work, so it does not matter what the charge is,” she said. “We firmly believe a person accused of a crime deserves a fair trial and due process.”
Frese added, “They deserve legal representation, or the whole system falls through, no matter what the charge, whether it’s a speeding ticket or a murder charge. That’s what Chad and I intend to be for Cristhian in this case.”
Her husband and co-counsel, Chad Frese, elaborated on his criminal-defense philosophy in a Facebook post the day Tibbetts’ body was found.
“All too often I am asked, ‘Chad how do you defend these criminals?’ ‘Is it because you get paid?’ ‘You don’t like these people certainly?’ It’s not easy to explain. However, today it’s a little simpler,” he wrote.
Frese referred to an earlier suspect in the Tibbetts investigation named Wayne Cheney.
“And up until 4:00 pm today almost everyone was convinced he was responsible for the death of Mollie Tibbetts,” he said. “Our minds were made up. He must’ve done it. Everyone was talking about sex trafficking. This guy looked a bit off. He fit the bill. Cops kept going after him. They just needed that one piece of information. Now they had it. We waited until 4:00 pm to hear he was behind bars.”
Frese continued, “But wait…. an illegal alien snatched her up and committed this heinous act? He admitted to it? He took the cops to the body? How can that be? They had the killer in custody. It wasn’t Wayne Cheney. We were all wrong.”
The attorney said at the time, before he represented Rivera, that his future client’s arrest illustrated why he does his job.
“Doing what I do protects the Wayne Cheney’s and everyone else who could come into the crosshairs from the power of the government and the rush to judgment by the masses,” he wrote. “You see lost in the media hype will be the life of a beautiful young woman. Also lost in the mix will be the narrative of a man falsely accused. There will be no more stories about the horrors of sex trafficking committed by US citizens. It’ll all be lost in the frenzy of illegal immigration talk.”
Frese concluded by emphasizing the right to fair legal proceedings: “It’s called the Sixth Amendment. For you bleeding heart liberals it’s just as important as the First and for you gun lovers it’s as sacred as the Second.”