Jury Begins Deliberations in Trial of Mollie Tibbetts’ Accused Killer

After a week’s testimony, lawyers for the state and the defense give closing statements on why Mexican immigrant Cristhian Bahena Rivera should — or should not — be convicted of first-degree murder.

Cristhian Bahena Rivera listens as his attorney Chad Frese delivers his closing arguments in his trial, Thursday, May 27, 2021, at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — Jurors met for about three hours Thursday to begin weighing evidence in the prosecution of Cristhian Bahena Rivera for the 2018 murder of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts after attorneys for the state and for the defense made closing statements.

Bahena Rivera, 26, who immigrated illegally from Mexico at the age of 17, 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. The case attracted national interest, in part prompted by politicians from the state’s Republican governor to then-President Donald Trump who used Tibbetts’ murder as evidence that the nation’s immigration system failed.

The defendant faces life in prison if he is convicted of first-degree murder.

Prosecutor Scott Brown, an assistant Iowa Attorney General, told jurors in his closing statement Thursday that the evidence points to one man who is guilty of stabbing Mollie Tibbetts to death. That man, he said as he pointed to the defendant seated in the courtroom, is Cristhian Bahena Rivera.

In response, Bahena Rivera’s defense attorney Chad Frese said there are good reasons for the jury to have doubts about the state’s case, which he said targeted Bahena Rivera to the exclusion of other potential suspects because law enforcement authorities felt pressured by enormous public interest and a “media circus” atmosphere following Tibbetts’ disappearance. As a result, he said state and local law enforcement, Homeland Security, and the FBI were desperate to close the case.

“They closed a case,” Frese told the jury, “they didn’t solve a case.”

Prosecutor Brown walked the jury through the evidence that had been presented over the past week. It begins with a surveillance video that places the defendant 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. And there is his statement to the officers that he put Tibbetts’ body in the trunk of his car — confirmed by blood in the trunk of Bahena Rivera’s car matching Tibbetts’ DNA — then took her to the cornfield, covered her body with corn stalks and left her there.

Brown next addressed motive, asking who had motive other than the defendant. Bahena Rivera’s motive, he said, was that he became angry with Tibbetts when she threatened to call the police and slapped him when he confronted her while she was jogging.

And there was malice aforethought: He “plunged a knife into her at least nine times,” Brown said. “If that’s not malice aforethought, I don’t know what is.”

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 underwear was off, 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.

Brown also dismissed the alternative story Bahena Rivera offered in court Wednesday that he was abducted by two strange men with their faces covered, and who Bahena Rivera implied were the real killers. Brown said Bahena Rivera had several days to hear the evidence and needed a different version of events to answer that evidence, so he came up with a story that Brown called “totally unbelievable.”

“The evidence in this case — there’s a mountain of it — is overwhelming,” Brown told the jurors, and it leads to the only conclusion: “Cristhian Bahena Rivera took this young woman’s life” he said as he showed the jury a photo of Mollie Tibbetts. “This is Mollie. He took her. He committed the murder. Mollie is no longer on this planet because of the defendant.”

Bahena Rivera’s 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 investigations, 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. Folks, there is serious doubt in this case. Cristhian Bahena Rivera has not had a case against him proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Frese disputed the state’s characterization of Bahena Rivera’s statements to police as a “confession,” which he said came after Bahena Rivera had been detained for 11 hours, isolated from his family, and lied to by police. When he told officers “I brought you here, didn’t I? I did it, didn’t I?” he was asking questions, not making statements as the state argued.

“So remember, that man right there is the one you have to judge,” Frese said, pointing to Bahena Rivera. “That man. The father, the son, the man who had come here to make a better life for those around him. He’s not a monster.”

The trial was moved to Scott County District Court in Davenport, Iowa, 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. The jury is scheduled to return to deliberations Friday morning.

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