An Iowa jury began deliberating the fate of a Mexican national Thursday after hearing wildly contrasting theories of who killed Mollie Tibbetts, a University of Iowa student.
In closing arguments in the high-profile case, a prosecutor said the evidence “overwhelmingly” points to Cristhian Bahena Rivera, whose defense attorney countered with the claim that Bahena Rivera actually was a victim of two armed kidnappers and that one of them fatally stabbed Tibbetts.
After seven days of hearing evidence and listening to testimony about a murder that rocked the American Heartland, the Scott County jury received the case and began deliberations Thursday afternoon. The panel deliberated for a little over three hours before calling it a day and will reconvene on Friday.
The closing arguments came a day after Bahena Rivera, a 26-year-old undocumented immigrant, took the witness stand in his own defense and for the first time claimed that two unknown men wearing stocking masks and sweaters on July 18, 2018, abducted him from his trailer house, forced him to drive to where the 20-year-old Tibbetts was jogging, killed her and put her body in the trunk of his car.
“That’s a figment of his imagination,” prosecutor Scott Brown said of Bahena Rivera in his closing summation in the Davenport, Iowa, courtroom.
Brown said “irrefutable evidence,” including DNA, surveillance video footage and the defendant’s earlier confession, points to the only person responsible for Tibbetts’ slaying — the one who led police to her body in a cornfield five weeks after she vanished while out for a jog in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa.
“Her life was brutally taken by the defendant on July 18, 2018,” Brown told the jury, showing a photo of a smiling Tibbetts on an overhead projector screen.
“She was confronted by this man,” Brown said, repeatedly pointing at Bahena Rivera. “She crossed paths with him and it ended her life.”
Defense attorney Chad Frese told the jury that under intense pressure to solve the case investigators “targeted” Rivera and “cherry-picked” facts that fit their theory without seriously considering the possibility of other suspects.
“There is serious doubt in this case,” Frese said.
Frese accused the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation of being “sloppy” in its investigation, claiming investigators “cut corners” in their rush to make an arrest in a case that he said had become “a circus,” attracting national media attention that included a reward for information on Tibbetts’ whereabouts that ballooned to $400,000.
“They had four weeks of nothing, and then they picked this man,” Frese said of his client. “Who better to pick than an undocumented immigrant, who doesn’t speak the language, who has nobody here to speak of to help him out?”
Video that broke the case open
Brown, an attorney for the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, was allowed to present his summation first, telling the jury that Tibbetts, a sophomore at the University of Iowa studying child psychology, was home for the summer and working at a day-care center.
“She was a smart young woman. She’s what you’d call a low-risk victim,” he said, explaining that Tibbetts had no known enemies, didn’t do drugs and was never the victim of domestic violence.
He said that after Tibbetts went missing, investigators worked tirelessly to find her. He said it wasn’t until mid-August 2018 when detectives combing through surveillance video from a home in Brooklyn came across footage of Tibbetts jogging and noticed a black Chevrolet Malibu circling the same area.
“Within 30 seconds of Mollie passing through that video we see that car,” Brown said. “This is the video that broke the case open.”
He asked the jury to recall the testimony of Steve Kivi, a Poweshiek County Sheriff’s investigator working on the Tibbetts’ case, who said he spotted the black Malibu while driving home from work on Aug. 16, 2018, followed it and identified Bahena Rivera as the driver.
Brown said that when Kivi initially questioned Bahena Rivera, he claimed to have no knowledge of Tibbetts other than what he saw on the news and on missing-person posters.
Brown said it was the first of four different stories Bahena Rivera has now come up with, including his testimony on Wednesday of the being abducted by masked men.
The prosecutor led the jury through statements Bahena Rivera made during an Aug. 20, 2018, interview with investigators, including a Spanish-speaking police officer, Pamela Romeo.
He said Bahena Rivera denied any involvement in Tibbetts’ disappearance until Romero confronted him with still photos from the security video placing his car at an exact time and location Tibbetts was jogging.
Romero testified during the trial that Bahena Rivera implicated himself in Tibbetts death, allegedly confessing that he did see her that day, that he found her attractive and followed her. Romero claimed that Bahena Rivera allegedly said he stopped his car and began jogging alongside Tibbetts and that she threatened to call the police.
“What does that do to him? It makes him angry,” Brown said. “He admits that he was angry. He admits that she slapped him at one point.”
He alleged that anger is what motivated Bahena Rivera to stabbed Tibbetts nine to 12 times.
Brown said Bahena Rivera told Romero that he “blacked out” and didn’t remember Tibbetts was in the trunk of his car until he looked down and saw her wireless earbud in his lap. In his testimony, Bahena Rivera admitted that he removed Tibbetts from his trunk and dumped her body in a cornfield.
Romero testified that after 11 hours of questioning, Bahena Rivera led investigators to the cornfield, where they found Tibbetts’ badly decomposed body about 500 feet down a row of tall corn, covered in leaves.
Brown said Tibbetts’ DNA was collected from the trunk of Bahena Rivera’s car. He reminded the jurors of Bahena Rivera’s alleged words to Romero after Tibbetts’ body was located: “I brought you here, didn’t I? So, that means that I did it. I don’t remember how I did it.”
“He’s telling the officer that he did it. It’s his confession. He’s telling officers that he killed Mollie Tibbetts,” Brown said.
He pleaded with the jury not to believe Bahena Rivera’s new story of being kidnapped by Tibbetts’ so-called real killers, saying Bahena Rivera has had ample opportunity to tell investigators.
“He didn’t tell them that because it’s not true,” Brown said.
Brown added, “Justice in this case, ladies and gentlemen, is a verdict of murder in the first degree.”
Frese, who’s defending Bahena Rivera along with his wife, attorney Jennifer Frese, also began his closing argument by speaking about Tibbetts.
“This young woman was a spectacular young woman. She was destined to do great things. She was destined to become the change she wanted to see in the world,” Frese told the jury. “She was just about to spread her wings and fly. We acknowledge that. We sympathize with her family.”
He said the loss of Tibbetts has evoked a lot of emotion.
“That could be a problem when you’re sitting as a juror, because when you’re sitting as a juror emotions have no place in that deliberation room,” Frese said. “Don’t decide this case based upon emotions. It’s not your job to right a wrong.”
Frese told the jury that local law enforcement working on the Tibbetts’ case had the “unlimited resources of the federal government,” including the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.
“Think about that. Now that is unprecedented,” Frese said.
Yet, Frese said, every lead investigators had chased in the first four weeks they searched for Tibbetts came up empty.
“Imagine the pressure to close this case,” Frese said. “Imagine the pressure to put this case to bed, because that’s the context in which this arrest and this charge happened.”
He said some of the investigation was “sloppy” and that “it really got sloppy when Cristhian Bahena Rivera got targeted.”
“Folks, what happened here was they closed a case. They didn’t solve a case,” Frese said.
He said “we wholeheartedly disagree” with the prosecution’s description of Bahena Rivera’s statement to Romero as a confession. He said that Romero and other investigators forced a “false confession” from Bahena Rivera, who wanted to “get them out of his hair” after he worked a 12-hour day at a dairy and was interrogated for 11 hours.
He noted that prosecutors never played the video during the trial of Bahena Rivera’s confession to Romero and left it up to Romero, an inexperienced police officer who had never previously conducted an interview in a homicide case, to tell the jury what was said. He also said there was never a video of Bahena Rivera leading investigators to the body.
Prosecutors said they didn’t play the video in court because the interview was conducted in Spanish.
Frese said investigators also didn’t seriously consider other suspects, including Tibbetts’ boyfriend, Dalton Jack, who testified that Tibbetts had found out he was cheating on her and that she discussed breaking up with him a month before she was killed.
Prior to the start of opening statements, prosecutors called Nick Wilson, Jack’s work supervisor, as a rebuttal witness. Wilson testified that on the day Tibbetts went missing Jack was with him working on a construction project in Dubuque, Iowa, about 140 miles from Brooklyn.
Brown said police investigators looked at six different people, including Jack, and cleared them all.
Frese asked the jury to consider Bahena Rivera’s testimony that two men kidnapped him, forced him to drive to where Tibbetts was jogging and that one of them stabbed her to death. Bahena Rivera testified that the assailants told him they knew his former girlfriend, Iris Gamboa, the mother of his 5-year-old daughter, and threatened to harm her and the child if he told the police about them.
Frese asked the jury to acquit Bahena Rivera, saying his testimony “makes as much sense as the state’s theory.”
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