Public Safety

Man accused of killing Mollie Tibbetts wants trial moved out of Poweshiek County

Claims extensive pretrial publicity prevents fair, impartial jury pool

Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, is escorted out of the courtroom after pleading not guilty to the charge of first-degree murder in the death of Mollie Tibbetts on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018, at the Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma. (Pool photo, Kelsey/Kremer, The Gazette)
Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, is escorted out of the courtroom after pleading not guilty to the charge of first-degree murder in the death of Mollie Tibbetts on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018, at the Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma. (Pool photo, Kelsey/Kremer, The Gazette)

MONTEZUMA — Lawyers for the man accused of fatally stabbing Mollie Tibbetts last summer want his trial moved out of Poweshiek County because of extensive pretrial publicity.

Lawyers for Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, who is charged with first-degree murder, said their client cannot receive an impartial trial with a jury selected in Poweshiek County, where Tibbetts grew up, according to the motion filed Friday in Poweshiek District Court.

The community is where hundreds of people volunteered to help in a monthlong search for the 20-year-old University of Iowa student after she vanished while jogging July 18 in her hometown of Brooklyn, according to the motion.

In the motion, Rivera’s lawyer Chad Frese said the case almost immediately drew local and national attention as news crews came to Brooklyn to interview family and community members. Besides helping in the search, community members created social media groups, including one on Facebook that has over 58,000 members.

President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Gov. Kim Reynolds weighed in on the case after law enforcement said Rivera was a Mexican national who was undocumented, Frese said in the motion. Those opinions created more prejudice against Rivera and further jeopardize his chance to receive a fair trial in this county, according to the motion.

The time that has passed since Rivera was charged hasn’t “cooled” emotions and opinions about him and Tibbetts death, Frese said in the motion. In January, after the defense asked for the trial to be reset, media outlets wrote articles, which resulted in hundreds of comments, mostly negative, including ones on how Rivera should be killed or about his race and nationality, Frese said.

In a separate motion, also filed Friday, Frese asked the court to toss out Rivera’s police interview, which includes a confession, claiming police violated his rights by not informing him that he could decline to cooperate with them and also telling him he didn’t need an attorney.

In the motion, portions of the transcript from the interview are included but not the portion with Rivera’s confession. Most of the transcript showed authorities attempting to get Rivera to tell them why he killed Tibbetts, telling him they already knew it was him but wanted to know why. Officers told him they found Tibbetts’ hair in his vehicle.

Rivera repeatedly said he couldn’t help them and he didn’t know anything. He claimed he didn’t know how Tibbetts’ hair could be in his vehicle, maybe it’s from his wife and daughter, he suggested.

Some or most of the interview was conducted in Spanish with one of the officers translating for Rivera and other investigators, according to the motion.

Frese said the confession wasn’t voluntary for several reasons, including the language barrier, Rivera’s lack of education, officers saying he didn’t need a lawyer, Rivera agreeing to do anything requested by officers — which indicated he didn’t think he had a choice — and the length of the interview after Rivera had worked an almost 12-hour shift at his job.

The prosecution hasn’t filed a response.

The trial is set to start on Sept. 3 in Poweshiek County District Court.

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

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

Rivera remains in jail on a $5 million bail.

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

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