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Jury Selection Begins In Trial Of Cristhian Bahena Rivera

Kate Payne / IPR
Jury selection has begun in trial of Cristhian Bahena Rivera, who faces a first degree murder charge in the killing of Mollie Tibbetts. The 20 year old college student went missing while on a run in her hometown in rural Iowa in 2018.

Jury selection got underway Monday in the trial of Cristhian Bahena Rivera, who faces a first degree murder charge in the death of Mollie Tibbetts, a University of Iowa student who disappeared while on a run in 2018. Through their questioning of potential jurors, attorneys warned that the case will be a difficult one, with emotional testimony and disturbing evidence; concerns persist around finding a fair and impartial jury in the case, which has attracted national attention.

Some 175 people filed into the RiverCenter convention hall in downtown Davenport for socially distanced jury selection on Monday, marking the beginning of the trial of Bahena Rivera.

Multiple potential jurors were dismissed because they had already developed an opinion on the case, which has drawn extensive media coverage. Tibbetts’ disappearance while on a run in her hometown of Brooklyn sparked a massive search operation and a multi-agency investigation.

Investigators say that Bahena Rivera, a farmhand and undocumented immigrant from Mexico who lived in rural Poweshiek County, told them he followed Tibbetts while she was running, and that he eventually led officers to her body, hidden in a cornfield.

Jury selection hints at potential arguments

Posing questions for the prosecution, Assistant Attorney General Scott Brown asked potential jurors whether they would find circumstantial evidence credible, and whether they would trust police officers and other witnesses even if they made mistakes in their recollection of events.

Bahena Rivera’s attorneys have established that an officer improperly read him his Miranda Rights during an interrogation, and District Judge Joel Yates has ruled that as a result, some portions of his interview with police cannot be presented as evidence.

During his questioning of potential jurors, defense attorney Chad Frese appeared to lay the groundwork for an argument suggesting that officers may have extracted a false confession.

“Have you ever found yourself telling somebody what you think they want to hear?” Frese asked a potential juror.

Frese asked multiple prospective jurors if they were familiar with the concept of a false confession, and whether they would consider evidence that his client was subject to “coercive” practices by police, if such evidence were to be introduced.

Frese also acknowledged that Bahena Rivera’s immigration status has become a “flashpoint”, asking potential jurors directly if his client’s “race or immigration status” would affect their view of the case.

Pundits and politicians seized on Tibbetts’ death and Bahena Rivera’s immigration status to further their anti-immigration views. Tibbetts’ family has harshly criticized the politicization of her death.

“[D]o not appropriate Mollie’s soul in advancing views she believed were profoundly racist. The act grievously extends the crime that stole Mollie from our family,” her father Rob Tibbetts wrote in a Des Moines Register opinion piece in 2018.

Both attorneys were frank with the pool of potential jurors, warning them that the task would be a challenging one: examining the violent death a young woman. Both pressed prospective jurors on whether they would be able to consider the evidence and come to a fair determination, despite the disturbing nature of Tibbetts’ death.

“We want fair and impartial jurors. That’s what we want,” Brown said. “We need you to be fair and impartial.”

Prosecution plans to call roughly 20 witnesses

Brown said he expects to call around 20 witnesses in the case, which slated to last about two weeks. The witness list is expected to include a number of police officers and investigators, a state medical examiner and forensics expert, residents of Brooklyn, and Tibbetts’ boyfriend at the time, Dalton Jack.

The jury selection process will continue Tuesday. Once a jury is empaneled, the trial will move to the Scott County Courthouse for opening statements. Due to coronavirus concerns, Yates has ordered that the public and journalists will not be allowed inside the courtroom apart from one pool photographer and some remote-controlled video cameras. The proceedings will be available via livestreams.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter