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Prosecutor says trial in Iowa student's death won't be easy

Mollie Tibbetts (left) and murder suspect Cristhian Bahena Rivera. AP images.

A prosecutor is warning prospective jurors that the trial of a Mexican national charged in the fatal 2018 stabbing of a University of Iowa student will include graphic evidence that will be emotionally difficult to see and hear.

Posted: May 17, 2021 6:51 AM
Updated: May 17, 2021 2:21 PM

DAVENPORT, Iowa (AP) — A prosecutor warned prospective jurors Monday that the trial of a Mexican national charged in the 2018 fatal stabbing of a University of Iowa student will include graphic evidence that will be emotionally difficult to see and hear.

Prosecutor Scott Brown said the first-degree murder trial of Cristhian Bahena Rivera in the death of 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts will feature testimony about the stab wounds she suffered after going for a run.

“We’re going to talk about the violent death of a young girl, Mollie Tibbetts,” he said. “It’s not going to be pleasant.”

Brown spoke during jury selection at an events center in Davenport, where lawyers began working to whittle down a 175-person pool to 12 jurors and three alternates. Jury selection is expected to continue Tuesday before a two-week trial at the Scott County Courthouse.

Legal experts say ensuring a fair trial for Rivera, a farm laborer who is suspected of entering the country illegally as a teenager, will be difficult given the extraordinary circumstances of the case.

Rivera’s arrest inflamed anger over illegal immigration, with then-President Donald Trump calling Rivera a killer who exploited lax immigration laws and Iowa’s governor calling him a predator. The case deepened anxieties about random violence against women, since Tibbetts was attacked while out for exercise in her small town of Brooklyn, Iowa.

Rivera, 26, has been jailed since his arrest in August 2018. He wore a dress shirt and navy slacks Monday and listened through headphones as an interpreter translated the proceedings into Spanish. He’s likely to face a jury that will be predominantly white in a state that Trump carried in 2020.

“This case has a double-edged problem with picking fair and impartial jurors. They can be overcome, but they are problems,” said Drake University law professor Mark Bennett, a former federal judge who doesn't have a link to the case.

Tibbetts, who was working toward her dream of becoming a child psychologist, is an extremely likeable victim who will draw sympathy from jurors, Bennett said. In addition, some will question Rivera’s immigration status because of the interpreter, even if the judge doesn’t allow any mention of it, he said.

Underscoring the challenge, 10 of the first 12 potential jurors questioned Monday said they had heard about the case, and five said they had formed opinions about it.

Those jurors were interviewed individually in private to determine whether they could be fair. At least two white men were soon excused.

One prospective female juror said she felt sympathy for Rivera because he's accused of a horrible crime, and for the family of Tibbetts, who she said was “so viciously murdered.”

“I think whoever did this should definitely pay,” the woman said, adding that her view would “not at all” prevent her from serving.

Dan Vondra, an Iowa defense lawyer who routinely represents Spanish-speaking clients and isn't involved in the case, said the two-day jury selection seemed too short given the issues the case raises. He said jurors who posted opinions about the highly publicized case on social media should be screened out to avoid problems later.

Judge Yoel Yates has barred the public from the trial, citing COVID-19 restrictions, but it will be livestreamed by media outlets.

Tibbetts went for a run in July 2018 through Brooklyn, population 1,700, where she ran cross-country in high school. She never made it back to the home where she was dog-sitting for her boyfriend and his brother, who were out of town.

Her disappearance triggered a massive search that featured hundreds of law enforcement officials and volunteers and drew extensive media coverage. Detectives say they zeroed in on Rivera a month later after obtaining surveillance video showing a Chevy Malibu appearing to circle Tibbetts as she ran, and a deputy later spotted him in town driving that vehicle.

Investigators showed up at the dairy farm where Rivera worked to interview him and search his vehicles. Rivera initially denied involvement and federal agents put an immigration detainer on him during a lengthy interrogation after finding blood in the Malibu's trunk. Hours later, investigators say he confessed to approaching Tibbetts as she ran, killing her in a panic after she threatened to call police and hiding her body in a cornfield. He allegedly led police to the body, which had been buried underneath leaves.

An autopsy found that she died of sharp force injuries due to stabbing, although investigators have not recovered a murder weapon. Police say that DNA testing on blood found in the trunk of the vehicle showed it was a match for Tibbetts.

Rivera, the father of a young daughter, had no prior criminal history. His lawyers have not signaled what their strategy will be and they declined to comment ahead of trial. If convicted, Rivera faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The trial was moved to Scott County — 100 miles east of Brooklyn — after defense lawyers noted that local residents had “very strong opinions” about Rivera’s guilt and Mexican nationality, and that they were nearly all white. Scott County’s population is diverse by Iowa standards but is still roughly 80% white and 7% Hispanic or Latino.

Trump seized on Rivera’s August 2018 arrest to argue for strengthening the nation’s immigration laws, calling him an “illegal alien” who killed “an incredible, beautiful young woman.” Gov. Kim Reynolds expressed anger that “a broken immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community.”

The anti-immigrant backlash was swift. The Republican family who employed and housed Rivera under an alias reported getting death threats. Robocalls linked to a white supremacist group blanketed Iowa calling for mass deportations. Immigrants, even many in the country legally, said they were afraid.

The anger cooled after Tibbetts’ family members demanded that politicians stop using her killing to promote a racist agenda she would have opposed, and said immigrants should be treated as neighbors, not scapegoats.

“My clients tell me that her family’s speeches saved lives, that they might have prevented violent reprisals,” said Bram Elias, who directs an immigration practice at the University of Iowa law school. “In some ways it’s a sign of how effective they were that today we are thinking about how he can get a fair trial.”

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