Motion: Accounts support Bahena Rivera’s testimony
Cristhian Bahena Rivera listens to court proceedings May 25 in his trial in the Scott County Courthouse. Iowa. Bahena Rivera was on trial after being charged with first degree murder in the death of Mollie Tibbetts in July 2018. (Pool Photo/Kelsey Kremer/Des Moines Register)
Citing information that started coming to light before their client was convicted May 28 of the murder of former University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, defense lawyers say new witnesses can bolster claims that sex traffickers were involved in the killing and are asking for a new trial.
Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 26, is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday for the first-degree murder conviction. A jury found he killed the 20-year-old college student in July 2018 while she was out for a jog in Brooklyn, Iowa.
At trial, prosecutors presented home surveillance video showing a Chevrolet Malibu traced to Bahena Rivera driving by Tibbetts as she jogged that night. Police recounted how he had told them during questioning that he had approached her, but could not remember what happened next. Her DNA was found in the trunk of his car and he led authorities to a cornfield where her body was found.
At trial, though, Bahena Rivera took the stand in his own defense. In a surprising twist, he testified he was kidnapped by two masked men who forced him to drive to where Tibbetts was jogging. One of them killed her, he said, and put her body in the Malibu’s trunk.
A prosecutor argued Bahena Rivera’s account was a “figment of his imagination.” The jury deliberated seven hours over two days before convicting Bahena Rivera, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, of the murder.
In the new court filing, defense lawyers Jennifer and Chad Frese assert there are witnesses who can support Bahena Rivera’s version of events — that others were responsible.
The motion asserts that two different people who do not know each other told law enforcement in two different cities that the same person — who is not named in the motion — was involved in the killing.
“This evidence would certainly have made a difference in the verdict. The defendant chose to testify and spoke of two individuals who were involved in the abduction and killing of Mollie Tibbetts,” the defense motion states. “The DNA from defendant’s trunk identified other individuals who were contributors to the blood mixture. It also helps explain the relative scarcity of blood in defendant’s trunk. While perhaps not every bit of the account fits neatly into defendant’s account of the events, enough of the facts fit to certainly question whether the state would have been able to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt had this information been known and presented to a jury.”
The motion tells the accounts of two individuals who are not named in the document.
The first came to light May 26 — the same day the defense rested, but before the jury reached a verdict. According to the motion, an inmate who had seen TV coverage of the case approached a prison chaplain to say he once shared a cell with another inmate who spoke of the case.
This second inmate — called Inmate 2 in the court papers — detailed “that he and another individual whom he identifies by name, were staying in a “trap house” owned by an approximately 50 year old male involved in the sex trafficking trade. Inmate 2 discussed his relationship with this approximately 50 year old male and then stated that on one occasion he went to a second “trap house” owned by the male. Inmate 2 then advised inmate that at the second trap house he and the second individual saw Mollie Tibbetts bound and gagged.“
The motion asserts that the 50-year-old man “devised a plan for them to stab Mollie Tibbetts and dump her body near a Hispanic male in order to make it appear that the Hispanic male committed the crime.”
In a separate episode, the motion states, a different person told the Poweshiek County Sheriff’s Office of an encounter with an man who had pulled a gun on the individual. The person told authorities that the gunman had stated “’that Mexican shouldn’t be in jail for killing Mollie Tibbett’s because I raped her and killed her.’”
Authorities said this person was “very emotional” and “likely under the influence.” However, the defense lawyers said this person named the same person as did the inmate as the one responsible for Tibbetts’ murder.
Though the defense motion did name any of the potential new witnesses, a separate motion in the same case asks that a Mount Pleasant Correctional Institution prisoner named Arne Maki be brought to court.
A judge granted the request, ordering Maki to be transported to a hearing Thursday, the same day as the scheduled sentencing. Court records show a man named Arne Maki of Keokuk County reached a plea deal in a domestic violence case in October 2020 and was sentenced to two years in prison.