Judge resets trial to January for man accused of killing Mollie Tibbetts

Trial moved to Scott County because of scheduling issues

Cristhian Bahena Rivera (left) talks to his defense attorney, Jennifer Frese, through an interpreter during a Nov. 14 he
Cristhian Bahena Rivera (left) talks to his defense attorney, Jennifer Frese, through an interpreter during a Nov. 14 hearing at the Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma. Bahena Rivera is accused of killing University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts in July 2018. On Friday, his first-degree murder trial was rescheduled for January and moved to Scott County District Court in Davenport. (Brian Powers/Des Moines Register/pool photo)

MONTEZUMA — The trial for the man accused of killing University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts — who died two years ago next week — has been reset to January.

The trial also will be held in Scott County District Court in Davenport.

Eighth Judicial District Judge Joel Yates on Friday granted a motion from prosecution and defense attorneys asking the trial be moved to next year because of the pandemic and changing orders from the Iowa Supreme Court on when jury trials can resume.

The trial for Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 26, charged with first-degree murder, was previously set for Sept. 29 in Woodbury County District Court. The trial was moved out of Poweshiek County because of pretrial publicity.

Chad Frese, the lawyer for Bahena Rivera, said Friday the move to Scott was to accommodate scheduling for all parties involved.

The Iowa Supreme Court’s latest order allows jury trials to start after Sept. 13. All courthouses will start face-to-face court services next week, including hearings and misdemeanor non-jury trials.

Bahena Rivera is accused of fatally stabbing 20-year-old Tibbetts, who went missing July 18, 2018, while jogging in Brooklyn, Iowa, her hometown. Her body was found Aug. 21 in a cornfield, where Bahena Rivera led authorities.

Authorities, during a suppression hearing last November, said Bahena Rivera admitted to driving past Tibbetts on July 18, 2018, while she was jogging, then getting out of the car and chasing after her. Tibbetts threatened to call the police, authorities said, which angered Bahena Rivera.

Investigators obtained a surveillance video from a homeowner in Brooklyn that captured images of a jogger they believe was Tibbetts, which shows Bahena Rivera’s vehicle, a black Chevrolet Malibu with distinctive chrome handles and mirrors, passing by her, according to hearing testimony.

Bahena Rivera told authorities he “blocked his memory” but later found Tibbetts’ body in the trunk of the Malibu. He then hid her body in a cornfield, according to testimony.

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

In the motion to suppress and pretrial appeals, Bahena Rivera’s attorneys argued authorities had not properly read their client his Miranda rights until hours into an interrogation. Therefore, they said, statements he made were inadmissible.

Prosecutors, in their brief, acknowledged that some statements shouldn’t be admitted because some of the rights were left out when read to Bahena Rivera.

Police later read him the Miranda rights properly, officers testified during the hearing.

Yates agreed that some statements Bahena Rivera made must be omitted from trial.

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

He also 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 stated.

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