Defense Makes Opening Statements, Calls Witnesses In Bahena Rivera Trial
The defense made its opening statements Tuesday in the trial of Cristhian Bahena Rivera, who faces a first degree murder charge in the 2018 killing of Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old University of Iowa student who went missing while on a run in her hometown of Brooklyn. Bahena Rivera’s attorneys sought to paint him as a hard-working immigrant and dedicated family member; they worked to cast doubt on others that officers had investigated, including Tibbetts’ boyfriend.
Bahena Rivera’s attorneys laid out their main arguments Tuesday, having opted to wait to make their opening statements until after prosecutors rested their case.
Turning around to face the jurors sitting socially distanced towards the back of the courtroom in Scott County, attorney Jennifer Frese presented her client as an immigrant who came to Iowa from his native Mexico seeking a better life. And she described him as a “yes man” who found himself caught up in a high stakes investigation for a gruesome crime that attracted national attention.
“This defendant here, a man who is a yes man. That's what the evidence will show you,” Frese said in her opening statements. “’Go clean the stable.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Go do this.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Go do that.’ ‘Yes.’”
There is no evidence that Bahena Rivera and Tibbetts knew each other. Investigators first took notice of the dairy worker when his car was identified on surveillance camera footage in the area where Tibbetts was believed to be running on the evening she disappeared.
He ultimately came in for an interview with officers that lasted 11 hours. Frese has suggested her client was sleep deprived during the encounter and that officers prompted him to make a false confession.
“They said, ‘you know, we don’t believe you. We don’t believe that you weren’t there’,” Frese said. “And the confrontation continued until it was put in my client’s head, ‘perhaps you blacked out’.”
Police officer Pamela Romero, who was with the Iowa City Police Department at the time, conducted the interview with Bahena Rivera entirely in Spanish. Romero has testified that it was over the course of the interview that Bahena Rivera admitted to chasing Tibbetts, fighting with her, “blacking out” and then recalling Tibbets was in the trunk of his car, and ultimately hiding her body in a cornfield.
Frese argued that investigators were under significant pressure to find a suspect and that they didn’t fully vet evidence in the case.
“The state in this case, they got what they wanted and they closed the case,” Frese told the jurors. “There was an intense amount of pressure, that’s what the evidence has shown you, to close this case, to arrest someone for this vicious crime. And instead of continuing to work the case, instead of continuing to work the evidence, they just submitted it to you.”
DNA consultant testifies there were other people’s DNA in Bahena Rivera’s car
The first witness the defense called Tuesday was consultant Michael Spence, who is routinely hired by defense attorneys to review DNA analyses and to give expert testimony.
An analyst from the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation Criminalistics Laboratory had previously testified that DNA evidence found in the trunk of Bahena Rivera’s trunk matched Tibbetts’ genetic profile and his own.
Spence testified that he took issue with the state lab’s interpretation of the DNA analysis and said that other DNA profiles were also found in Bahena Rivera’s trunk.
"I would say that it's typical of a lot of laboratories that they are going to be very oversimplified in interpreting mixtures like that. And a lot of times they're going to be just written off as uninterpretable or not suitable for comparison," Spence said. "To some degree, I agree with that."
But he said he disagreed in that "there are other contributors there and you can even in some instances, as I pointed out, you can deduce that they were likely from a female in one instance, in one area, 58. And then there was male DNA in another area that was unaccounted for," he said.
Spence said he did not find fault in the state lab’s testing protocols. He testified that if investigators had supplied additional known DNA samples, including from other potential suspects, he would’ve been able to do a comparison to try and identify the sources of the other DNA profiles.
Spence acknowledged that there is no way to tell when the DNA was deposited.
Bahena Rivera’s family member, ex-girlfriend testify
Also called to testify Tuesday were Bahena Rivera’s aunt, Alejandra Cervantes Valle, and his ex-girlfriend Iris Gamboa, who is also the mother of his daughter.
Speaking through an interpreter, Cervantes Valle described how her nephew came to Iowa in order to seek a better job so that he could send money home to his parents, who stayed in Mexico. His paycheck helped them pay for food and build a house, she testified.
Before he was arrested, Cervantes Valle said she would generally see Bahena Rivera once a week at family gatherings. She described him as respectful, funny and well-loved by children, and said he was not known to be angry.
“With the family, he's very funny. He always is playing with the family,” Cervantes Valle said through an interpreter. “Oh yes. All the children loved him.”
Gamboa testified that Bahena Rivera was a devoted father who loved his daughter and that he supported her financially even after the couple split up in 2017. Though they ended their relationship, Gamboa said that they continued to raise their daughter together, with Bahena Rivera taking care of her when he was off work, willingly paying her child support, buying her gifts, and celebrating her birthdays at parties attended by both sides of the family.
“He was a really good father. He was responsible and he always looked after his daughter,” Gamboa said.
Gamboa testified that she did not know Bahena Rivera to have excessive anger issues, that he was never violent with her, and that she didn’t know of him having mental health concerns or periods where he would “black out” or lose parts of his memory.
Tibbetts’ boyfriend again denies involvement in her disappearance
The defense team also recalled Tibbetts’ boyfriend Dalton Jack for further questioning, as part of their effort to cast doubt on the man, who had been a target of suspicion before investigators cleared him.
Jack testified last week, acknowledging that he had given inconsistent accounts to law enforcement and that he had cheated on Tibbetts with another woman, but describing Mollie as the love of his life and denying any involvement in her disappearance.
On Tuesday, defense attorney Chad Frese questioned Jack at length about the affair he had with another woman, referencing pages of records of texts and Snapchat messages, much of which Jack denied being able to recall.
Jack did testify that he had planned to propose to Tibbetts and had bought an engagement ring, despite the couple having discussed breaking off the relationship in the month before she went missing.
Frese also questioned Jack about his own anger issues and again pressed him on why his memory was so sparse when it came to the events surrounding the disappearance of the woman he intended to marry.
“How many times did you try to call Mollie [after she disappeared]?” Frese asked.
“I don't have an exact number,” Jack replied.
“She's the love your life, right?” Frese added. “And you're not blowing up her phone?”
“I don't know if I did or not,” Jack replied.
But in his own line of questioning, prosecutor Scott Brown sought to clear Jack, who again denied any involvement in Tibbetts’ disappearance.
“Did you take officers to [the cornfield] to find Mollie Tibbetts?” Brown asked.
“No I did not,” Jack said.
“Did you place cornstalks on her body in order to conceal her from anyone that may be looking?” Brown asked.
“No, I did not,” he replied.
“Mr. Jack, did you have anything at all to do with the disappearance or murder of Molly Tibbets?” Brown asked.
“No,” Jack said.
Bahena Rivera has pleaded not guilty to a first degree murder charge in Tibbetts’ death. Jury deliberations in the case are expected to begin this week.