Public Safety

Trial on hold for man accused of killing Mollie Tibbetts while awaiting Iowa Supreme Court appeal

Defense asks justices to review district judge's ruling on key evidence

Cristhian Bahena Rivera talks to his defense attorney, Jennifer Frese, through an interpreter at a Nov. 14 hearing in Po
Cristhian Bahena Rivera talks to his defense attorney, Jennifer Frese, through an interpreter at a Nov. 14 hearing in Poweshiek County District Court in Montezuma. His attorneys are asking the Iowa Supreme Court to review a district court judge’s ruling on what evidence can be allowed at Bahena Rivera’s trial. That request has put on hold the trial for Bahena Rivera, 25, accused in the 2018 slaying of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts. (Pool photo by Brian Powers/Des Moines Register)
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MONTEZUMA — A judge on Wednesday put a hold on the trial for the man accused of killing University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts because his lawyers want the Iowa Supreme Court to review a district judge’s ruling regarding key evidence.

Eighth Judicial District Judge Joel Yates, in his order, said the proceedings will be on hold until Supreme Court justices decide whether to accept the pretrial appeal, which is rare in Iowa cases.

The Iowa Supreme Court on Wednesday issued an order, saying any response to the appeal by the prosecution must be filed by noon Monday, Jan. 27.

If the Supreme Court accepts the review, the proceedings will remain on hold until a ruling is made, which will delay a Feb. 4 trial because such a review could take weeks or months.

If the court doesn’t take it up, Yates will lift the stay and continue proceedings.

The defense is appealing Yates’ ruling from December, which allowed key evidence at trial that lawyers for Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 25, sought to exclude.

DeFENSE ARGUMENT

In Tuesday’s motion asking for the Feb. 4 trial to be delayed, the defense attorneys argued they recently received unidentified blood and fingerprint evidence in the case they didn’t have before and said it needed more time to take depositions of new witnesses who will be called by the prosecution, including Tibbett’s boyfriend, Dalton Jack, who has since joined the military and is deployed to the Middle East.

Investigators with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation have said Bahena Rivera led them to Tibbetts’ body on Aug. 21, 2018, about a month after she disappeared while jogging in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa.

Authorities said Bahena Rivera admitted to driving past Tibbetts on July 18, 2018 — the day she disappeared — while she was out running, then getting out of the car and chasing after her. Tibbetts threatened to call the police, authorities said, which angered Bahena Rivera.

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He told authorities he “blocked his memory” but later found Tibbetts’ body in the trunk of the Chevrolet Malibu he was driving. He then hid her body in a cornfield, according to testimony during a November suppression hearing.

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

DNA, FINGERPRINTS QUESTIONED

Bahena Rivera’s lawyers, Chad and Jennifer Frese, argue they only recently received DNA and fingerprint reports from a state criminologist.

Those reports indicated blood from two other people was found along with Tibbetts’ blood in the Malibu’s trunk — neither of which matched Bahena Rivera. A set of fingerprints that did not match his also was found in the trunk.

The defense also received lab reports just earlier this month that included the discovery of a folding knife with a “suspected hair” on it that was collected from a home. They said the knife did not have fingerprints on it.

In the application for the appeal, the defense argues Bahena Rivera’s “substantial” rights were affected by Yates’ ruling because Yates found his statements were voluntarily made to authorities.

Any physical evidence, including Tibbetts’ body being found as a result of Bahena Rivera’s statements, will be admitted at trial, the defense stated.

Yates, in his December ruling, agreed to throw out part of the police interview where the suspect was not properly read his rights — about six hours of the interview. But Yates mostly sided with the prosecution in allowing other evidence, including Bahena Rivera leading authorities to the body.

The defense in the appeal, argues law enforcement, during the interview, also used an impermissible two-step interrogation technique — question first, Miranda later — which has been found unconstitutional. The court also ignored the “deliberate and coercive tactics” that authorities used, which included:

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• 15 officers came to Yarabee Farms, Bahena Rivera’s worksite, and questioned Hispanics, including the defendant.

• Bahena Rivera was taken to the sheriff’s department and had no transportation home.

• Authorities didn’t tell Bahena Rivera that his family was waiting in the lobby while he was interrogated.

NO REASON FOR DELAY

The prosecution, in response to the defense’s motion on Tuesday, said there is no valid reason to delay the trial, adding the request for the pretrial review was not a reason to delay the trial.

Prosecutors also argued the defense had ample time to conduct depositions of prosecution witnesses but indicated months ago they weren’t taking depositions of any witnesses.

They point out the defense waited nearly a month after Yates’ ruling to file a request for a pretrial appeal, knowing the trial was set for Feb. 4.

In the motion, the prosecution also criticizes the defense for providing salacious details in a public document and mischaracterizing information about Jack, Tibbetts’ boyfriend, and what testimony he can provide.

According to police accounts at the time, Tibbetts was caring for Jack’s dogs at his home just before she disappeared.

In media interviews, Jack said he was in Dubuque on business when Tibbetts, his girlfriend of three years, went missing after she sent him a “selfie” photo on Snapchat.

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

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