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.