Jury selection for man charged in Mollie Tibbetts' death begins in Iowa

"It's not going to be pleasant," the prosecutor told potential jurors.

May 17, 2021, 5:11 PM

The murder trial of a Mexican farmworker accused of fatally stabbing 20-year-old University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, who was attacked while out for an evening jog in 2018, began on Monday with jury selection.

Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 26, is charged with first-degree murder in the case that garnered national attention and prompted former President Donald Trump to make Bahena Rivera, an undocumented worker, an example of what he called a broken U.S. immigration system.

Jury selection in the case is expected to take two days. Opening arguments are scheduled to start Wednesday at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport, Iowa.

Bahena Rivera has pleaded not guilty.

A potential jury pool of more than 170 people will be pared down to 12 jurors and three alternates.

Mollie Tibbetts is seen here in this undated file photo.
Jenny Fiebelkorn/Special to the Register via USA Today Network, FILE

Finding a fair and impartial panel to hear the case will be the first hurdle prosecutors and defense attorneys face.

Nine of the first 12 would-be jurors questioned on Monday said they have some familiarity with the case, and five said they had already formed an opinion, the Des Moines Register newspaper reported.

The trial was moved to Scott County from Poweshiek County, where the slaying occurred, after Bahena Rivera's attorney requested a change of venue due to pretrial publicity. Prosecutors agreed with the move, writing in a motion that a "fair and impartial jury cannot reasonably be selected in Poweshiek County."

Prosecutor Scott Brown warned prospective jurors on Monday that some of the evidence expected to be presented will be hard to stomach.

"We're going to talk about the violent death of a young girl, Mollie Tibbetts," Brown said. "It's not going to be pleasant."

Cristhian Bahena Rivera is escorted into the Poweshiek County Courthouse for his initial court appearance, Aug. 22, 2018, in Montezuma, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall/AP, FILE

Tibbetts, a sophomore at the University of Iowa studying psychology, disappeared on July 18, 2018, while out for an evening jog in the rural farming town of Brooklyn, a close-knit community of about 1,500 residents 68 miles east of Des Moines.

A massive search involving hundreds of law enforcement officers was launched and approximately $400,000 was raised as a reward for information leading to Tibbetts' safe return. Celebrities with ties to Iowa, such as NBA player Harrison Barnes of the Sacramento Kings and actor Tom Arnold, took to social media to comment on the case.

A critical break in the case came when police discovered security camera footage of Tibbetts out jogging and noticed she was being followed by a Chevrolet Malibu that was linked to Bahena Rivera, who worked at a nearby dairy.

When investigators interviewed Bahena Rivera, he allegedly told authorities that he saw Tibbetts running, got out of his car and ran alongside of her, according to an arrest affidavit.

Bahena Rivera claimed Tibbetts grabbed her phone and said, "I'm gonna call the police," according to the affidavit.

Bahena Rivera allegedly told authorities he got angry, killed Tibbetts in a panic and "blocked" his "memory," according to the affidavit. Authorities say he told investigators he didn't remember anything about the incident until he got back in his car, drove to an intersection, noticed Tibbetts' earpiece from her headphones in his lap and realized he had put her body in his trunk, according to the affidavit.

Rivera reportedly said he then drove to a cornfield and dumped Tibbetts' body, the affidavit reads. Police said that on Aug. 21, 2018, Bahena Rivera led investigators to the cornfield, where Tibbetts' body was found covered in leaves.

Following an autopsy, the Iowa State Medical Examiner ruled Tibbetts' death a "homicide resulting from multiple sharp force injuries."

ABC News' Emily Shapiro contributed to this report.