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Court Hears Arguments For New Trial In Cristhian Bahena Rivera Case

Defense attorney Jennifer Frese speaks during a hearing for her client Cristhian Bahena Rivera at the Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma, Iowa, on Thursday, July 15, 2021. Bahena Rivera was convicted of killing University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts in 2018. A judge delayed Bahena Rivera's sentencing after defense attorneys asserted authorities withheld information about investigations into a nearby sex trafficking ring the lawyers say could have been involved in the fatal stabbing. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Defense attorney Jennifer Frese speaks during a hearing for her client Cristhian Bahena Rivera at the Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma on Thursday.

Prosecutors sought to undermine new testimony in court that other suspects may have been involved in the 2018 death of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts. The man convicted of killing her, Cristhian Bahena Rivera, was back in Poweshiek County court on Tuesday asking for another trial, after new evidence surfaced related to her disappearance.

At the courthouse in Montezuma on Tuesday, attorneys for Bahena Rivera called witnesses and presented testimony that they claim links Tibbetts’ case to an alleged sex trafficking ring in the area.

Attorneys Chad and Jennifer Frese are arguing that their client deserves another trial after new evidence has come to light, including statements from two witnesses who claim another man confessed to killing Tibbetts.

A jury found Bahena Rivera guilty of first degree murder in May in Tibbetts’ killing. His sentencing has been delayed while the motion for new trial plays out.

Witness says his 'conscience' compelled him to report confession

One of the first witnesses called to the stand Tuesday was Arne Maki, who is currently incarcerated at the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility. Maki testified that a man named Gavin Jones confessed to killing Tibbetts and framing Bahena Rivera for her death, telling Maki of his alleged deeds while both men were being held at the Keokuk County Jail.

“He’s like, ‘I killed her’,” Maki testified that Jones told him. “He’s like, ‘we set him up’. He’s like, ‘it was a sex trafficking case gone wrong and I stabbed her to death and put her in a tarp. Me and my Black friend that doesn’t speak English that good. And [we] set him up’.”

Jones and Dalton Hansen were staying in a “trap house” where sex trafficking was taking place and where they saw Tibbetts bound and gagged, according to Maki’s testimony. It was a trafficker who ordered Jones to kill Tibbetts, Maki said.

Maki told the court that he initially didn’t believe Jones’ claims, but felt compelled to come forward after seeing coverage of Bahena Rivera’s trial detailing that the defendant had a young daughter, had no criminal history, and had testified that he was set up by two men.

During his trial, Bahena Rivera testified in his own defense, claiming that two masked strangers abducted him from his home and forced him to drive them around as they kidnapped and killed Tibbetts, leaving her body in the trunk of his car. Previously, Bahena Rivera had told officers he acted alone when he followed Tibbetts and hid her body in a cornfield.

“Right there, I told myself…my conscience told me,” Maki said of seeing the coverage of Bahena Rivera’s testimony, “I should say something, even if it's not true.”

In their questioning, prosecutors sought to poke holes in Maki’s testimony of Jones’ account, noting apparent inconsistencies with the facts of the case. For instance, crime scene investigators found no evidence that Tibbetts’ body was wrapped in a tarp, as Maki was told.

Jones and Hansen have both denied any involvement in Tibbetts’ disappearance, according to reporting by the AP.

Defense seeks to establish link between Tibbetts and alleged sex trafficker

The defense also sought to establish links between Tibbetts and the recent disappearance of Xavior Harrelson, a boy who also went missing from Poweshiek County. The 11-year-old was last seen in Montezuma on May 27.

Bahena Rivera’s attorneys tried to cast doubt on a man named James Lowe, who had been a live-in boyfriend of Harrelson’s mother and had been accused of sex trafficking a woman he met in Tibbetts’ hometown of Brooklyn before leading her to a trap house in nearby New Sharon.

Witness testimony established that while law enforcement officers initially considered the sex trafficking allegation against Lowe to be credible, they were ultimately unable to substantiate it. Prosecutors pointed out Lowe was never charged with a sex crime, at which point tensions in the courtroom reached a peak.

“There's no evidence the defense has given the court either in a pleading or anything that James Lowe is involved in sex trafficking. The investigation they keep referring to in Mahaska County, he wasn't even charged with anything relating to sex trafficking,” Iowa Assistant Attorney General Scott Brown said.

“It is preposterous that Mr. Brown says there's no evidence of sex trafficking,” Jennifer Frese retorted.

Judge urges defense to stay on topic

Prosecutors repeatedly disputed any connection between Tibbetts and Harrelson and urged District Judge Joel Yates to block certain testimony from witnesses that they worried could disclose information about the ongoing investigation into Harrelson’s disappearance.

“This has no bearing or relevance to this case. There is no connection between James Lowe and Mollie Tibbets’ disappearance,” Brown said during one objection. “My concern is that this is an ongoing investigation relating to a missing 10-year-old kid.”

While Yates allowed much of the testimony to continue, he at times conceded that he did not see how Harrelson’s case was relevant to Tibbetts’. Yates repeatedly directed the defense team to get to the point.

“I would just again remind the defense who we're here on. New trial in the Rivera case, right?” Yates asked. “We need to get back to that.”

Defense questions why investigators didn't test more DNA

The defense again questioned why investigators didn’t submit more DNA profiles for testing to identify other potential suspects that may have been associated with Bahena Rivera’s car, a point that was also brought up at trial.

DNA testing confirmed both Bahena Rivera’s DNA and Tibbetts’ DNA were present in the trunk of his black Chevy Malibu, along with the genetic profiles of two other people. But investigators only ever submitted Bahena Rivera’s DNA for testing, a point which Jennifer Frese pressed with Special Agent Trent Vileta of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.

“You haven’t requested Gavin Jones’ DNA. Is that right?” Frese asked.

“That’s correct,” Vileta replied.

“You haven’t requested James Lowe’s DNA. Is that right?” she said.

“That’s correct,” he replied.

“In fact, you haven’t requested anyone’s DNA other than my client’s. Isn’t that correct?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said.

Brown meanwhile questioned Vileta if he knew of any evidence to connect the other men with Tibbetts.

“Any connection at all through your investigation to Gavin Jones, [Dalton] Hansen, James Lowe or anyone else, other than Cristhian Rivera?” Brown asked.

“No,” Vileta replied. “Cristhian Rivera murdered Mollie Tibbetts.”

Yates said he’ll issue a written ruling on the motion for a new trial "as quickly as he can."

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter