Public Safety

Iowa will pay for expert witness for man accused of killing Mollie Tibbetts, judge rules

FILE PHOTO: Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, looks to his attorney Allan Richards as he makes his initial appearance on a ch
FILE PHOTO: Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, looks to his attorney Allan Richards as he makes his initial appearance on a charge of first-degree murder during at the Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma, Iowa, on Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018. Rivera is accused of killing University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

MONTEZUMA — A judge ruled Wednesday that the state will pay a $3,200 stipend for an expert witness to assist the man accused of fatally stabbing Mollie Tibbetts last summer.

Lawyers for Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, who is charged with first-degree murder, said the stipend is needed to hire a forensic expert with Criminal Case Consultants in Buffalo, N.Y. The expert can provide insight on interrogation techniques and analytical investigative methods given the “length, context, language barriers and other factors involved in the police interrogation” of Rivera, Chase Frese, Rivera’s lawyer, said in the motion.

The stipend is required for the expert to begin looking into those issues but doesn’t cover costs of testimony at trial or travel expenses, Frese said in the motion. The defense will make separate requests for those funds if necessary.

Eighth Judicial District Judge Joel Yates approved the stipend Tuesday, saying a financial affidavit filed with the court shows Rivera is indigent and qualifies for public funds, which will be paid by the state. If additional funds are needed, the defense will have to obtain court approval, the judge added.

Assistant Iowa Attorney General Scott Brown didn’t resist the motion for funds but disagreed with the defense’s “characterizations” of why the funds were needed. The defense has said a that a language barrier between law enforcement and Rivera caused confusion during police interviews on Aug. 20-21. The prosecution is not aware of any significant language barrier, Brown said.

Brown, in the motion, said authorities had an interpreter when they first spoke with Rivera on Aug. 20, and the police officers who conducted the majority another interview on Aug. 20 and 21 were fluent in Spanish. Spanish is the first language of the primary officer conducting those interviews, Brown added.

“The defendant never indicated a lack of understanding or any question due to a language barrier at either the farm or the sheriff’s office,” Brown said in the motion.

Brown noted that one of the interviews was lengthy but said there were frequent breaks. Rivera was allowed to access his cellphone for most of the interview, and he was provided with food and drink, Brown said.

The defense previously asked the court to move the trial out of Poweshiek County because of extensive pretrial publicity. A hearing on that motion is set for next Wednesday in Poweshiek County District Court.

The defense also filed a motion to toss out Rivera’s police interview, which includes a confession, claiming police violated his rights. That hearing will be June 25.

The prosecution hasn’t filed a resistance to either motion.

Rivera is accused of abducting and killing Tibbetts, a 20-year-old University of Iowa student who vanished while jogging July 18 in her hometown of Brooklyn, according to a criminal complaint.

A preliminary autopsy showed Tibbetts died from “multiple sharp force injuries,” which indicates she was stabbed with a knife or other sharp object.

Rivera, a native of Mexico who was illegally living and working in the United States, had been living and working in the area for years, authorities said.

Rivera remains in jail on a $5 million bail. His trial is set for Sept. 3.

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