Public Safety

Judge allows key evidence in trial for man accused of killing Mollie Tibbetts

Ruling: Discovery of Tibbetts' body and blood evidence will be allowed

Cristhian Bahena Rivera talks to his defense attorney, Jennifer Frese, through an interpreter Nov. 14 during day two of
Cristhian Bahena Rivera talks to his defense attorney, Jennifer Frese, through an interpreter Nov. 14 during day two of an evidence suppression hearing at the Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma. Bahena Rivera confessed to killing Mollie Tibbetts last year but his attorneys filed a motion to suppress the confession because he was not properly read his Miranda warning during initial interviews with police. (Pool photo by Brian Powers/Des Moines Register)

Rejecting most contentions from the defense, a judge ruled Monday that key evidence against the man charged with killing University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts can be used against him at his trial — including help he gave authorities in finding her body.

In his ruling, 8th Judicial District Judge Joel Yates said he’d allow the key evidence provided by defendant Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 25, in the February murder trial.

In addition to allowing a jury to hear that Bahena Rivera led authorities to Tibbetts’ body in a cornfield near Guernsey, the judge ruled prosecutors can use blood evidence found in the trunk of his vehicle they say matches Tibbetts’ DNA.

Tibbetts went missing July 18, 2018, after she went for a jog in her hometown of Brooklyn in Poweshiek County.

After a massive community search and a criminal investigation, authorities said Bahena Rivera admitted to killing her and then led them Aug. 21, 2018, to a cornfield where her body was hidden. An autopsy showed she died of multiple stab wounds.

Yates’ ruling comes after arguments were heard in a two-day hearing in November over what evidence would be allowed at trial.

Defense attorneys argued that authorities had not properly read Bahena Rivera his Miranda rights until hours into an interrogation. Therefore, they said, statements he made were inadmissible.

Prosecutors acknowledged that some statements shouldn’t be admitted because not all the rights were correctly read to Bahena Rivera. Police later read him the Miranda rights properly, officers testified.

Yates agreed that some statements Bahena Rivera made must be omitted from trial. But the judge denied the rest of the defense’s moves to suppress Bahena Rivera’s statements, including arguments that he was sleep-deprived, that he had only limited understanding of English and that law enforcement tried to induce a false confession.

Yates wrote that Bahena-Rivera’s statements were made voluntarily during the interrogation and in giving consent to search his vehicle.

Yates noted that a consent form in Spanish informed Bahena Rivera he had the right to refuse a search of the vehicle.

Even when the tone of questioning shifted to be confrontational because law enforcement didn’t believe Bahena Rivera, he had access to his cellphone and was free to leave, the judge found.

Authorities had surveillance video linking Bahena Rivera’s car to the area where Tibbetts was last known to be jogging before she vanished.

The court estimated he had been awake about 19 hours when the interrogation began, and Yates said he understands the questioning lasted many more hours. But two officers testified he appeared engaged and attentive to their questions, and a video supports that, Yates added.

Rivera, who is in the country illegally, was working on a dairy farm at the time of his arrest.

His trial is set for Feb. 4. He faces life in prison without parole.

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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