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Cristhian Bahena Rivera Found Guilty In Tibbetts' Death; His Attorneys Plan To Appeal

Student Killed Iowa
Charlie Neibergall/AP
/
AP POOL
Cristhian Bahena Rivera, center, stands with his attorney Jennifer Frese, right, as he listens as the verdict is announced in his trial, Friday, May 28, 2021, at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport, Iowa. A jury on Friday found Cristhian Bahena Rivera guilty of first-degree murder in the stabbing death of Mollie Tibbetts, a University of Iowa student who vanished while out for a run in 2018. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, pool)

A jury has found Cristhian Bahena Rivera guilty of first-degree murder in the 2018 stabbing death of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts. The 20-year-old college student went missing while on a run in her hometown of Brooklyn, IA on July 18, 2018. Her disappearance prompted a massive month-long search effort that drew national attention. Bahena Rivera faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The jury of five women and seven men, three of whom identify as Hispanic or Latino, handed down the unanimous verdict Friday afternoon at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport. The jurors, whose ages range from 19 to 71, had been deliberating the case for roughly seven and a half hours after hearing closing statements Thursday afternoon.

Bahena Rivera appeared to nod silently to himself as the verdict was read. Following the brief proceeding, he was led away in handcuffs.

Tibbetts’ family said to be "pleased" with the verdict

Speaking to reporters after the verdict was handed down Friday, prosecutor and Assistant Iowa Attorney General Scott Brown said he had spoken to Tibbetts’ family and that they were “pleased” and “relieved."

“We hope that in the end, when these cases are over, we can bring a sense of justice to them,” Brown said. “Even though we would never have the ability to bring Mollie back, we hope moving forward that they know the person that did this to her is going to be held fully accountable.”

Members of Tibbetts’ family declined an invitation to make comments to the media during a post-verdict press conference.

Tibbetts was studying psychology at the UI and had just completed her freshman year when she went missing. She was known for her bubbly, friendly personality and loved ones say she was a devoted daughter and a caring friend, with a heart for helping others.

Bahena Rivera’s attorney acknowledges “pretty incriminating evidence” against him

As the trial played out over the course of two weeks, prosecutors had argued it was Bahena Rivera, a farm worker and undocumented immigrant from Guerrero, Mexico, who confronted Tibbetts while she was running that evening, that he stabbed her to death between 9 and 12 times, and left her body to rot in a cornfield, where it remained for more than a month.

Prosecutors pointed to home security camera footage that identified Bahena Rivera’s black Chevy Malibu in the area where Tibbetts was believed to be running on the evening she disappeared, Bahena Rivera’s own admissions to law enforcement over the course of an 11 hour interview, and DNA evidence confirming her blood was in the trunk of his car.

It was Bahena Rivera who ultimately led officers to Tibbetts’ body in the early hours of August 21, 2018 after an 11 hour interview with investigators, during which he admitted to confronting her on the road and getting angry with her when she threatened to call the police, before allegedly “blacking out” and later coming to and hiding her body in a field and covering it with cornstalks.

Bahena Rivera’s attorney Chad Frese acknowledged to reporters that his client’s statements to investigators presented a major challenge for his defense.

“We had a situation where our client gave a statement, and he had her DNA in the trunk, and he led them to the body,” Frese said. “That's all pretty incriminating evidence.”

Student Killed Iowa
Charlie Neibergall/AP
Cristhian Bahena Rivera, center, is taken out of the courtroom after the announcement of the verdict in his trial, Friday, May 28, 2021, at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport, Iowa. A jury on Friday found Cristhian Bahena Rivera guilty of first-degree murder in the stabbing death of Mollie Tibbetts, a University of Iowa student who vanished while out for a run in 2018. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, pool)

Bahena Rivera’s account of two masked men has been consistent from the start, attorney says

In a surprise development, Bahena Rivera had taken the stand in his own defense Wednesday, denying that he killed Tibbetts and instead alleging that two masked, armed men appeared in his home and forced him to drive them around as they followed Tibbetts while she ran. He claimed it was these two men who were responsible for her death and who placed her body in his trunk.

Bahena Rivera testified that before the masked men disappeared and left him with the body, they threatened his daughter and her mother by name, threats which prevented him from alerting law enforcement out of fear of retaliation.

Frese said that while Bahena Rivera never gave that account to law enforcement, his story had been consistent.

Student Killed Iowa
Charlie Neibergall/AP
Assistant Iowa Attorney General Scott Brown, left, and Poweshiek County Attorney Bart Klaver speak during a news conference after the verdict announcement in the Cristhian Bahena Rivera trial, Friday, May 28, 2021, at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport, Iowa. A jury on Friday found Bahena Rivera guilty of first-degree murder in the stabbing death of Mollie Tibbetts, a University of Iowa student who vanished while out for a run in 2018. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, pool)

“From the very first day we met Mr. Bahena, the story he put forth on the stand was exactly the version of the events he told us, going back to August 2018,” Frese said. “He had never varied from that version of the events, not one…not one detail.”

Prosecutors dismissed Bahena Rivera’s account as a “figment of his imagination,” urging jurors to focus on their evidence: the video, the admissions, and the DNA.

They denied allegations from Bahena Rivera’s attorneys that “sloppy” police work and unprecedented public pressure had prevented investigators from fully vetting the evidence in the case, or that anti-immigrant bias factored into the charging of Bahena Rivera, who had been working under a false identity at Yarrabee Farms in rural Poweshiek County.

“[Law enforcement] should be applauded for getting us to this spot,” Brown told reporters. “These cases don't happen, these convictions don't happen without good, competent - more than competent - excellent investigators that we have with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, our local law enforcement in Poweshiek County, all the other assistance that we had with the FBI and Homeland Security.”

Brown again pushed back against the defense’s arguments that Tibbetts’ boyfriend Dalton Jack may have been involved and wasn’t sufficiently vetted as a potential suspect.

“Dalton Jack did not do this, ok? Let's just put that out of everybody's mind,” Brown said. “He did not do this. The person that did it was convicted.”

Political environment added pressure to high stakes case

Bahena Rivera’s attorneys acknowledged the caustic political environment the case played out in, wagering that if the trial had gone ahead in 2018, it would’ve been “a very difficult time for an immigrant”.

Even in 2021, attorney Jennifer Frese said it would’ve been “impossible” to seat a jury virtually anywhere in the country that wasn’t familiar with Tibbetts’ story.

“We wouldn't be able to find someone, a group of people that haven’t heard from this case,” Frese said, but noted they’re “very pleased that the jury took the time that they did to look at the evidence and to deliberate in this case.”

Student Killed Iowa
Charlie Neibergall/AP
Defense attorneys Jennifer Frese, left, and Chad Frese speak during a news conference after the verdict announcement in the Cristhian Bahena Rivera trial, Friday, May 28, 2021, at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport, Iowa. A jury on Friday found Bahena Rivera guilty of first-degree murder in the stabbing death of Mollie Tibbetts, a University of Iowa student who vanished while out for a run in 2018. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, pool)

In 2018, politicians and pundits had seized on the revelation that an undocumented immigrant had been charged in the killing of a young woman in her small and overwhelmingly white hometown, seeking to use the case to further their own anti-immigration proposals.

President Donald Trump, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds and other Republican officials pointed to the tragedy as justification for cracking down on immigration ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, during which immigration had been a major campaign issue.

Tibbetts’ family members had harshly criticized the politicization of her killing; Tibbetts' father, Rob Tibbetts, lambasted the anti-immigration views pushed by conservatives, which he said his daughter believed were “profoundly racist.”

Sentencing scheduled for July 15

Bahena Rivera’s sentencing hearing is slated for July 15 at the Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma. He faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. After sentencing, his attorneys have 30 days to file an appeal, which they have said they will do.