116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Eight women and seven men — 12 jurors and three alternates — starting Wednesday will weigh murder charges against a farm laborer accused of fatally stabbing a University of Iowa student nearly three years ago while she was out jogging.
Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 26, is accused in the death of 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts in July 2018. Opening statements are scheduled for Wednesday morning at the Scott County Courthouse. The trial is expected to last through next week.
Because of pandemic concerns, Judge Joel Yates has barred the public from attending in person but several media outlets including The Gazette plan to livestream the proceedings. The livestream at TheGazette.com is expected to start after jurors report at 8:30 a.m.
After two days of work, a prosecutor and Bahena Rivera’s defense attorney on Tuesday afternoon finished choosing the panel from a pool of 183 prospective jurors after questioning them on their knowledge of the case, their opinions of his guilt and other subjects.
Bahena Rivera, who may have entered the United States from Mexico illegally a decade ago, is accused of fatally stabbing Tibbetts while she ran through her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa, and hiding her body in a cornfield.
The disappearance of Tibbetts, who was studying at the UI to become a child psychologist, prompted a massive search involving hundreds of officers and volunteers.
Detectives said 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 car. During a lengthy interrogation, he confessed to approaching Tibbetts and killing her in a panic after she threatened to call police, detectives said. Authorities say he led them to her body, and an autopsy later found she died of sharp force injuries from stabbing.
Prosecutor Scott Brown had warned prospective jurors Monday that the trial isn't “going to be pleasant,” saying it will feature graphic photos and evidence.
Bahena Rivera's arrest inflamed anger over illegal immigration, with then-President Donald Trump calling him a killer who exploited lax immigration laws and Iowa’s governor calling him a predator. The case also deepened anxieties about random violence against women.
The trial was moved roughly 100 miles from Poweshiek County to Scott County after defense lawyers said residents around Brooklyn, population 1,700, had strong opinions about their client's guilt. The town has been decorated with turquoise ribbons this week in Tibbetts' memory.
According to census figures, about 7 percent of Scott County residents report they are Hispanic or Latino, though that is more than double the 3.2 percent rate of Poweshiek County.
Defense lawyer Chad Frese only briefly addressed his client's immigration status and ethnicity during jury selection, saying Bahena Rivera enjoys the same rights as U.S. citizens and that his lack of English language skills could not be held against him.
He suggested earlier this week he will argue that the confession was coerced and false and that he will cast suspicion on others for the death.