Immigrant Found Guilty of Murdering University of Iowa Student

The jury of seven men and five women reached its verdict after hearing six days of testimony in the prosecution of dairy farm worker Cristhian Bahena Rivera for the murder of Mollie Tibbetts.

Cristhian Bahena Rivera watches as the jury enters the courtroom before announcing the verdict in his murder trial Friday at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, Pool)

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — An Iowa jury on Friday found Cristhian Bahena Rivera guilty of first-degree murder for the 2018 stabbing death of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts.

Bahena Rivera faces a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. He stood in the courtroom expressionless when the jury’s verdict was read by U.S. District Judge Joel Yates. He will continue to be held in jail without bond until sentencing, scheduled for July 15.

Defense attorneys Chad and Jennifer Frese told reporters in a press conference following the verdict that they will file a post-trial appeal based on a review of the trial evidence and the judge’s rulings on defense motions prior to and during the trial.

Chad Frese thanked the jurors for taking time to come to their decision.

“We wish it would have been different, of course, but they certainly came to their decision and we respect that decision,” he said. “We will explore our options post-trial and go from there.”

Assistant Iowa Attorney General Scott Brown told reporters Friday there were several key elements of the state’s case: “The surveillance video that captured his car right when Mollie Tibbetts ran through; the defendant’s confession at the sheriff’s office on the 21st of August [2018]; and kind of cinching all that up is Mollie’s blood being found in the trunk of [Bahena Rivera’s] vehicle.”

“I think that’s what did it,” said Poweshiek County Attorney Bart Klaver, who prosecuted the case with Brown. “The big thing – he knew where the body was.”

The verdict came after a little over seven hours of jury deliberation over two days following six days of testimony. The jury consisted of five women and seven men, nine of whom are white and three Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish, ranging in age from 19 to 71.

Bahena Rivera, 26, who immigrated from Mexico at the age of 17, was charged with killing Tibbetts, who was 20 at the time she disappeared on July 18, 2018, while taking an evening jog in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa, a town of 1,470 residents. Her body was not found until nearly five weeks later in a remote cornfield.

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

The case became the focus of national attention in the summer of 2018 when Tibbetts went missing. The national interest was in part prompted by politicians from the state’s Republican governor to then-President Donald Trump who pointed to Tibbetts’ murder as evidence that the nation’s immigration system failed.

At a political rally in West Virginia the evening Tibbetts’ death was announced, 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.”

Iowa Governor Kim 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 bring justice to Mollie’s killer.”

The trial was moved to Scott County from Poweshiek County, where the crime occurred, due to potential difficulties finding jurors who could be objective about a crime that stirred strong local passions.

Tibbetts, who has been described by relatives as having an “infectious laugh and beautiful smile,” was a psychology major at the Iowa City-based university and intended to go on to graduate school to become a psychiatrist, according to a 2018 Des Moines Register profile.

During closing arguments Thursday, state prosecutor Brown walked the jury through the evidence that had been presented over the past week.

It begins with a surveillance video that places Bahena Rivera in the same vicinity as the victim. Then the defendant takes law enforcement authorities to the site in a cornfield where Tibbetts’ body is found. He says to a police officer, “I brought you here, didn’t I? I did it, didn’t I?”— which the state says amounted to a confession.

There is also his statement to the officers that he put Tibbetts’ body in the trunk of his car – confirmed by blood in the trunk of the car matching her DNA – then took her to the cornfield, covered her body with corn stalks, and left her there.

Brown also said there was a sexual motive in the death of Tibbetts. When the body was found, her legs were spread apart, her knees were up, her shorts and underwear were removed, and her sports bra was pushed up. No one else had a sexual motive other than Bahena Rivera, who had said he found Tibbetts to be “hot” or “attractive,” Brown said.

Defense attorney Chad Frese told the jury in his closing statement that the state’s investigation was “sloppy” and became especially so when investigators focused on Bahena Rivera.

Frese ticked off things that he said were missing from the state’s case: no murder weapon has ever been found; no primary crime scene where the murder occurred has been found; no eyewitnesses to the murder have been found; no motive has been established; and “there is absolutely no evidence of premeditation,” he said, which is required for first-degree murder.

After weeks of investigation, Frese said, the police had nothing.

“Who better to pick than an undocumented immigrant who doesn’t speak the language, who has nobody here to speak of to help him out? And you cherry-pick the facts that fit your theory, and you close the case. Case closed. But the case is not solved,” the attorney said.

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