Cristhian Bahena Rivera has been found guilty of first-degree murder in the 2018 abduction and stabbing death of a University of Iowa student who disappeared while out for a run.
The jury began deliberations Thursday afternoon following closing arguments from prosecutors and the defense team after a two-week trial at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport. Jurors read the verdict Friday afternoon after about seven hours of deliberations.
In closing arguments, prosecutor Scott Brown urged jurors to convict Rivera, saying there is "overwhelming evidence" that Rivera is guilty of murder in the death of 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts. Speaking to the media after the verdict was read Friday, prosecutors said Tibbetts' family was relieved by the verdict. Brown said he hopes the verdict will offer a sense of justice for the family.
"Even though we'd never have the ability to bring Mollie back, in the end, they know the person that did this to her is going to be held fully accountable," Brown said.
In his closing argument, Brown called Bahena Rivera's testimony that two men kidnapped him at gunpoint and forced him to take part in the crime "a figment of his imagination," saying he concocted the story to try to explain away damning evidence.
Brown said the evidence shows that Bahena Rivera drove past Tibbetts while she was running on the evening of July 18, 2018, in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa. He said Bahena Rivera found her attractive, tracked her down on a rural road and approached her as she ran.
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Prosecutors in May dismissed a defendant’s testimony that he was framed by two masked men for the kidnapping and killing of an Iowa college student, calling it a figment of his imagination.
Jurors agreed, convicting Cristhian Bahena Rivera of first-degree murder in the July 2018 stabbing death of 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts in one of the state’s most high-profile cases in years.
But to two listeners outside the courtroom, Bahena Rivera’s shocking story rang at least partially true. They separately came forward recounting conversations in which another man bragged about his role in killing Tibbetts and blaming the crime on a Hispanic man.
Both witnesses are unknown to each other, yet independently identified the same suspect to authorities after Bahena Rivera testified in his own defense May 26, his lawyers revealed in seeking a new trial for the 27-year-old Mexican national who came to the U.S. illegally as a teenager.
The identity of the man implicated by the two witnesses hasn’t been revealed. But Judge Joel Yates granted a defense motion for one of them — an inmate at an Iowa prison — to testify at Bahena Rivera's sentencing hearing Thursday at the Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma, which is in central Iowa about halfway between Des Moines and Iowa City.
Prosecutors remain confident in Bahena Rivera’s guilt and they plan to respond to the defense claims this week, according to state attorney general’s office spokesman Lynn Hicks.
The prisoner who will testify Thursday says that when he was housed at a county jail, another inmate told him that Tibbetts had been kidnapped by associates and held at a “trap house” for sex trafficking, where she was bound and gagged, the defense motion says. He says that this other inmate said that he and another person killed Tibbetts after the publicity surrounding her disappearance got too big and that they dumped her body “near a Hispanic male in order to make it appear that the Hispanic male committed the crime,” the filing states.
The witness told prison officials and investigators that he thought the story “was bluster” until he heard Bahena Rivera’s testimony, the motion says.
The second new witness came forward to a local sheriff’s office, claiming she was in a car with the same man a month earlier when he pulled a pistol and said, “That Mexican shouldn’t be in jail for killing Mollie Tibbetts because I raped her and killed her,” the motion states.
The second witness was described as emotional and likely intoxicated, and at least one investigator dismissed the information as not credible. But both accounts were forwarded to Bahena Rivera’s prosecutors, who promptly notified his lawyers near the end of trial.
Defense lawyers say they continued with the trial because they had rested their case and didn't get more detailed information until after the verdict.
Prosecutors built their case on surveillance video showing Bahena Rivera driving in the vicinity of where Tibbetts disappeared while she was jogging in her hometown of Brooklyn and on DNA evidence showing that her blood was found in its trunk. Bahena Rivera also gave a partial confession and led investigators to a remote cornfield where her body was found a month after she disappeared.
Defense lawyers concede the new witnesses' claims don't exactly match the version of events shared by their client.
Testifying in his defense through a Spanish language interpreter, Bahena Rivera said that two masked men showed up at his trailer near the dairy farm where he worked, kidnapped him at gunpoint and ordered him to drive. On a rural road where Tibbetts was jogging, he said they had him stop the car as one of them got out, stabbed her to death and put her body in his trunk.
They then ordered him to drive to a cornfield, instructed him to dispose of the body and not to tell anyone about what happened or else they would kill his ex-girlfriend and their young daughter, Bahena Rivera said.
Afterward, defense lawyers said Bahena Rivera never wavered from that story from the moment they began representing him in 2018. In their motion for a new trial, they noted that testing of blood found in his trunk showed DNA from people other than Tibbetts who haven't been identified.
“While perhaps not every bit of the account fits neatly into defendant’s account of the events, enough of the facts fit to certainly question whether the state would have been able to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt had this information been known and presented to a jury,” they wrote.
POWESHIEK COUNTY, Iowa — Cristhian Bahena Rivera appeared in court Thursday as a judge considered possible new evidence in the murder of Mollie Tibbetts.
A jury found Bahena Rivera guilty of first-degree murder in Tibbetts’ death on May 28.
On Wednesday, his sentencing was delayed following claims from the defense regarding a confession to Tibbetts' murder and an alleged sex trafficking ring in Poweshiek County.
The defense claimed the ring could connect Tibbetts' murder to 11-year-old Xavior Harrelson's disappearance.
Thursday’s hearing related to a motion for the state to produce any evidence it may have regarding a sex trafficking operation.
“I think that it would be preposterous to believe that Cristian Bahanea and Mollie Tibbetts’ names did not come up in the Xavior Harrelson investigation,” defense attorney Jennifer Frese said. “We have two people that went missing in incredibly small towns, and all we are asking is that Mr. Bahena be given a fair shot.
State attorneys resisted requests from the defense and said they would not voluntarily provide the information asked of them.
Prosecutor Scott Brown said the state is under no obligation to locate the proposed evidence brought up by the defense.
“We resist providing anything that they’re asking for,” Brown said. “There is no discovery post-trial. If they wanna go and knock themselves out trying to find out all of this confusing information that has been presented to the court, go right ahead and do it.”
Brown went on to call the defense’s claims connecting Tibbetts’ case and Harrelson’s case “unconscionable.”
The judge said he would take the matter under advisement and expects to have a decision regarding the motion to compel evidence “by week's end.”