Public Safety

Defense asks Mollie Tibbetts murder trial be delayed over blood and fingerprint evidence

Prosecutors say defense has wrongly characterized those reports

Cristhian Bahena Rivera listens to the court preceding Sept. 19, 2018, during his arraignment at the Poweshiek County Co
Cristhian Bahena Rivera listens to the court preceding Sept. 19, 2018, during his arraignment at the Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma. Rivera plead not guilty to the charge of first-degree murder in the death of Mollie Tibbetts (Pool photo by Kelsey/Des Moines Register)
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Attorneys for the man accused of killing University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts want to delay the upcoming murder trial while they sort out what they describe as the state’s recent revelation of unidentified blood and fingerprint evidence in the case.

The defense also asked, in a motion filed Tuesday, for the Iowa Supreme Court to review a district judge’s decision allowing crucial evidence at trial that the defendant previously sought to suppress.

According to the motion, defendant Cristhian Bahena Rivera’s attorneys asked to postpone the Feb, 4 trial to give the defense time to depose new witnesses called by the state, including Tibbetts’ boyfriend, Dalton Jack, who has since joined the military and been deployed to the Middle East.

Investigators with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation have said Bahena Rivera led them to Tibbetts’ body on Aug. 21, 2018, about a month after she disappeared while on a run in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa.

Authorities said Bahena Rivera admitted to driving past Tibbetts on July 18, 2018 — the day she disappeared — while she was out running, then getting out of the car and chasing after her. Tibbetts threatened to call the police, authorities said, angering Bahena Rivera. He told authorities he “blocked his memory” but later came to find Tibbetts’ body in the trunk of the Chevrolet Malibu he was driving. He then hid her body in a cornfield, court documents show.

The state medical examiner’s report determined Tibbetts died of “multiple sharp force injuries.”

According to their motion, Bahena Rivera’s attorneys — Chad and Jennifer Frese — assert they only recently received DNA and fingerprint reports from the state’s criminologist.

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Those reports indicated blood from two others was found along with Tibbetts’ blood in the Malibu’s trunk — neither of which matched Bahena Rivera. A set of fingerprints that did not match him also was found in the trunk.

Highlighting the evidence as “highly exculpatory,” the defense attorneys asked for time so their investigators could follow up on the blood and fingerprint evidence.

The defense attorneys also said they received lab reports earlier this month that included the discovery of a folding knife with a “suspected hair” on it that was collected from a home. They said the knife did not have fingerprints on it.

The defense attorneys also filed an application for discretionary review of an interlocutory order in which they’re asking the state Supreme Court to review District Judge Joel Yates’s decision to allow most evidence to be taken to trial.

The defense, arguing in part that authorities did not properly read Bahena Rivera his rights, earlier sought to toss out his statements to police — which also would include that he led authorities to Tibbetts’ body.

Yates agreed to throw out part of the police interview where the suspect was not properly read his rights. But he largely sided with the prosecution in allowing other evidence, including that Bahena Rivera led them to the body.

In its response to the motion, the state said Tuesday there is no valid reason to delay the trial, adding that the request for the Supreme Court to review the case isn’t a reason for continuance.

“Knowing that the trial date is scheduled for February 4, 2020, the defense did not file a request for interlocutory appeal until Sunday, January 19, 2020, nearly a month after the court ruled on the suppression motion,” prosecutors wrote in their resistance.

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The prosecution also argued the defense has had ample time to depose state witnesses, and had “indicated many months ago that they had no intention to depose any of the state’s witnesses.”

In their motion, defense attorneys focused particularly on their desire to depose Jack, who they characterize as a “crucial defense witness” who can provide insight “to conversations with Mollie Tibbetts in the days/weeks/hours before her death.”

According to police accounts at the time, Tibbetts was caring for Jack’s dogs at his home just before she disappeared. In media interviews, Jack said he was in Dubuque on business when Tibbetts, his girlfriend of three years, went missing after she sent him a “selfie” photo on Snapchat.

In their motion, the defense lawyers assert Jack initially lied.

“Mr. Dalton Jack was originally interviewed by law enforcement on July 25, 2018,” the motion states. “Law enforcement suspected that Mr. Dalton Jack was lying and requested he undergo a polygraph. Mr. Dalton Jack agreed to take a polygraph and failed that polygraph on July 27, 2018,” they wrote.

The defense asserts Jack lied to hide that he was “unfaithful to Mollie Tibbetts in the fall of 2017.” The defense said Jack “admitted to having an online relationship” a month or two before the polygraph test, and that Tibbetts had found out about the relationship when the woman sent explicit messages.

Prosecutors admonished the defense lawyers for including the salacious details in a public document. And, they said, the defense “mischaracterizes the exam and its results.”

“On January 20, 2020, the State confirmed with the FBI polygrapher who conducted the exam that Dalton Jack’s results from the polygraph administered July 27, 2018, were inconclusive,” the prosecution argued.

Prosecutors did not address the defense’s assertions of additional fingerprint and DNA evidence, stating only that “the state disagrees with those characterizations in the defense’s motion.”

Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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