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Judge Delays Cristhian Bahena Rivera's Sentencing As Defense Seeks Information On Other Suspects

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)

The sentencing of the man convicted of the 2018 killing of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts has been delayed, after his attorneys requested more time to review new evidence in the case. Cristhian Bahena Rivera’s lawyers say new witnesses have come forward with information that casts doubt on his conviction and argue their client deserves a new trial.

Bahena Rivera had been scheduled to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in Poweshiek County court on Thursday, the mandatory sentence for first degree murder in Iowa.

Instead, Judge Joel Yates will hold a hearing on Bahena Rivera’s requests to compel prosecutors to release more information on other potential suspects, evidence which his lawyers argue the state has been withholding.

In responses filed Wednesday afternoon, prosecutors argued the evidence from the witnesses is not in fact new, saying the defense was made aware of the information before the verdict was handed down and neglected to act on it.

Court filings say two new witnesses have identified the same potential suspect

On May 28, 2021, a jury found Cristhian Bahena Rivera guilty in the stabbing death of Tibbetts, who went missing while on a run in her hometown of Brooklyn, IA on July 18, 2018.

Tibbetts’ disappearance, and the sweeping investigation that followed, attracted widespread media coverage and national interest.

Pundits and politicians, including then-President Donald Trump and Gov. Kim Reynolds, sought to use the death of Tibbetts and the indictment of Bahena Rivera, a farmworker from Guerrero, Mexico, to further their own anti-immigration positions.

First witness names a suspect allegedly associated with a sex trafficking ring

Jurors were apparently not persuaded by Bahena Rivera’s own testimony denying he killed Tibbetts. During the trial, Bahena Rivera testified two masked strangers abducted him from his home and forced him to assist them as they kidnapped Tibbetts and stabbed her, leaving her body in the trunk of his car.

But in recent court filings, Bahena Rivera’s attorneys Chad and Jennifer Frese have identified two new witnesses who they say came forward during the trial with information that supports their client’s account. Independently of each other, the two witnesses named the same suspect. Both say that suspect claimed to have killed Tibbetts.

0526-Cristhian-Bahena-Rivera-006.JPG
Kelsey Kremer
Cristhian Bahena Rivera testifies from the witness stand, on Wednesday, May 26, 2021, in the Scott County Courthouse, in Davenport, Iowa. Bahena Rivera is on trial after being charged with first degree murder in the death of Mollie Tibbetts in July 2018. (Pool Photo/Kelsey Kremer/Des Moines Register)

Prosecutors say they were made aware of the information on the afternoon of May 26, 2021, after the defense had rested its case, and that they immediately notified the defense.

According to the documents, one witness, an inmate at an Iowa correctional facility, contacted prison staff on May 26, 2021, and told investigators that another incarcerated individual, identified as Inmate 2, confessed to killing Tibbetts.

Inmate 2 detailed visiting a “trap house” owned by an approximately 50-year-old man involved in sex trafficking. According to the witness, Inmate 2 saw Tibbetts “bound and gagged” at the house. Inmate 2 then admitted that he and another man carried out a plan devised by the 50-year-old man to “stab Mollie Tibbetts and dump her body near a Hispanic male in order to make it appear that the Hispanic male committed the crime”.

According to court filings, the witness thought the story was “bluster” until he heard Bahena Rivera’s testimony from the stand. The witness also told investigators that he believed Tibbetts was going to be sex trafficked but “the publicity got too big too quick and something went wrong."

Defense attorneys argue witnesses’ statements support Bahena Rivera’s account

The first witness’ statements do not appear to be fully consistent with Bahena Rivera’s accounts. In an 11 hour interview with investigators in August of 2018, Bahena Rivera said he saw Tibbetts running on the evening she disappeared and confronted her, before he “blacked out”, coming to later that evening and remembering he had Tibbetts’ body in the trunk of his car.

Bahena Rivera told investigators he was the one who hid her body in a cornfield in rural Poweshiek County and he led them to her remains, covered with cornstalks.

It was during his trial that Bahena Rivera spoke publicly for the first time about the two masked men he says forced him at gunpoint to drive them around as they abducted and killed Tibbetts and that they threatened to “take care of” Bahena Rivera’s daughter and her mother if he told anyone what happened.

After Bahena Rivera’s conviction, his attorneys said his account about the two masked strangers has remained consistent since the first time they spoke with him in August of 2018. Bahena Rivera has said he didn’t approach law enforcement because he feared retaliation, in part because of his status as an undocumented immigrant.

Information from second witness initially dismissed as ‘not credible’

A second witness identified in the court filings contacted the Poweshiek County Sheriff’s Office on May 26, 2021, with information about the Tibbetts case. According to the documents, the Mahaska County Sheriff had also spoken with the witness but “dismissed the information as not being credible” because the individual seemed to be under the influence of a drug.

0524-Cristhian-Bahena-Rivera-007.JPG
Kelsey Kremer
Court proceedings continue in the trial of Cristhian Bahena Rivera, on Monday, May 24, 2021, at the Scott County Courthouse, in Davenport, Iowa. Bahena Rivera is on trial after being charged with first degree murder in the death of Mollie Tibbetts in July 2018. (Pool Photo/Kelsey Kremer/Des Moines Register)

The second witness identified the same suspect, alleging that they had been in a car with the man when he held a pistol to the witness’ head and said, “that Mexican shouldn’t be in jail for killing Mollie Tibbetts because I raped her and killed her.”

Bahena Rivera’s attorneys are seeking evidence about the individuals named by the witnesses, information that they argue prosecutors have kept “close to the vest” and that should be released.

In responses filed Wednesday, Assistant Attorney General of Iowa Scott Brown and Poweshiek County Attorney Bart Klaver disputed the defense’s claims and dismissed the witnesses’ testimony as “grossly inconsistent” with Bahena Rivera’s accounts.

Defense attorney argues new evidence casts doubt on Bahena Rivera’s conviction

In their filings, the defense lawyers also identify 50 year James Manuel Lowe as a 50-year-old man accused of running a sex trafficking ring in New Sharon, IA, who allegedly met one of his victims at a Casey’s in Brooklyn, IA.

The attorneys also point to other disappearances in the area, noting “at least 10 children” have gone missing from Poweshiek County and other neighboring counties in the past few years. The most recent disappearance is that of 11-year-old Xavior Harrelson, who went missing from Montezuma on May 27, 2021. According to the documents, Lowe had previously been a live-in boyfriend of Harrelson’s mother.

In their filings, Bahena Rivera’s attorneys acknowledge that the new statements from witnesses do not completely support their client’s accounts, but argue the information is significant enough to cast doubt on his conviction.

“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,” one motion reads in part.

In their responses filed Wednesday, prosecutors argued the defense’s requests for more information should be denied, calling them a “fishing expedition” and “yet another unsubstantiated theory” to cast blame on someone else.

And prosecutors argue the defense had its shot to act on the information: according to the prosecutors’ filings, the state “left it completely to the discretion of the defense” as to whether they wanted investigators to follow up on the testimony back in May, but said the defense declined, a decision which the prosecutors say they apparently “now regret."

“At the time the information was provided to the defense, prosecutors offered to request a suspension of the trial and to deploy agents from DCI to the Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility to follow up on the information provided by [the] inmate,” a filing reads in part. “The defense informed the undersigned that the information was inconsistent with their client’s testimony indicating that it was not worth pursuing.”