Public Safety

Lawyers want Mollie Tibbetts murder trial moved to 2021 because of coronavirus

An interpreter puts headphones on Cristhian Bahena Rivera so he can hear the translation during an evidence suppression
An interpreter puts headphones on Cristhian Bahena Rivera so he can hear the translation during an evidence suppression hearing at the Poweshiek County Courthouse on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, 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)

MONTEZUMA — The trial for the man charged with killing University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts nearly two years ago could be bumped to next year.

The prosecution and defense filed a joint motion Monday, asking 8th Judicial District Judge Joel Yates to move the trial for Cristhian Bahena Rivera, previously set for Sept. 29, to Jan. 26.

Assistant Iowa Attorney General Scott Brown, in the motion, said despite efforts to schedule the trial during the pandemic, the dates of when jury trials can start again keep changing.

The Iowa Supreme Court’s latest order will allow jury trials to start after Sept. 13. But both the prosecution and defense agree scheduling the trial at a later date would make sense.

A “glut of cases” expected in Woodbury County will have speedy demand deadlines and numerous COVID-19 restrictions on social distancing. Nearly three times the number of regular jurors will be needed for the Bahena Rivera trial, making social distancing more challenging.

Both the prosecution and defense have concerns because interpreters will be needed and everyone is required to wear a mask, which will obscure faces below the eyes while speaking, Brown said in the motion.

Bahena Rivera has waived his right to speedy trial, which puts him as a “secondary priority” for a trial date when trials resume in September, Brown added.

Yates had not responded to the order as of Tuesday.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Bahena Rivera is charged with first-degree murder in the fatal stabbing of Tibbetts. The 20-year-old went missing July 18, 2018, while jogging in her hometown, Brooklyn, Iowa. Her body was found about a month later on 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, the judge, agreed that some statements Bahena Rivera made must be omitted from trial.

Yates denied the rest of the defense’s arguments, including that Bahena Rivera was sleep-deprived, that he had only limited understanding of English and that law enforcement tried to induce a false confession.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

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.

Bahena Rivera’s trial was moved to Woodbury County because of pretrial publicity.

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

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.