Mollie Tibbetts' convicted killer loses bid for new trial

Cristian Bahena Rivera faces a sentence of life in prison without parole.

August 2, 2021, 7:11 PM

An Iowa judge has rejected a motion for a new trial for the man convicted of killing University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts.

Poweshiek County District Court Judge Joel Yates issued a written ruling on Monday denying Cristhian Bahena Rivera's bid for a new trial after he and his attorney's claimed he was framed for Tibbetts' 2018 slaying by the real killers.

In his ruling, Yates noted the Bahena Rivera's "trial strategy included casting doubt onto other individuals," including Tibbetts' boyfriend, Dalton Jack.

"It is doubtful that adding another possible suspect, one with no apparent ties besides being in the same county as Mollie, would have a reasonable probability [to] change the result of [the] trial," Yates wrote, adding that Bahena Rivera led law enforcement investigators to a cornfield where he admitted hiding Tibbetts' body and that her blood was found in the trunk of his car.

"Providing an alternative suspect is only a useful strategy when it is believable that the alternative suspect could have committed the offense," Yates said.

Yates had delayed Bahena Rivera's sentencing to give his attorneys an opportunity to call witnesses and present evidence to support their last-ditch claim that the 27-year-old did not kill the 20-year-old student.

Bahena Rivera, an undocumented farmworker from Mexico, now faces a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Yates scheduled Bahena River's sentencing hearing for Aug. 30.

On May 28, a jury convicted Bahena Rivera of first-degree murder after seven hours of deliberations over two days.

PHOTO: Cristhian Bahena Rivera appears during a hearing at the Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma, Iowa, on July 15, 2021.
Cristhian Bahena Rivera appears during a hearing at the Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma, Iowa, on July 15, 2021. Bahena Rivera was convicted of killing University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts in 2018.
Jim Slosiarek/AP

The case made national headlines as Tibbetts' disappearance sparked a month-long search. Her badly decomposed body was recovered from a Poweshiek County cornfield that Bahena Rivera directed investigators to on Aug. 21, 2018.

During the trial, the jury heard two wildly contrasting theories of what happened to Tibbetts.

Iowa police investigators testified that they questioned Bahena Rivera after his car, a black Chevrolet Malibu, was captured on surveillance video circling the neighborhood in Brooklyn, Iowa, at the time Tibbetts was last seen alive jogging in the area.

During a lengthy interview, investigators testified that Bahena Rivera allegedly told them he saw Tibbetts jogging and thought she was "hot." They said he claimed to have followed Tibbetts, got out of his car and jogged alongside her but she rejected his advance and threatened to call the police.

Investigators said Tibbetts was stabbed repeatedly but that Rivera told them he blacked out and did not recall attacking her. He said he later remembered putting Tibbetts' body in the trunk of his car when he noticed her earbuds in his lap while he was driving. He claimed, according to investigators, that he drove to the cornfield and buried Tibbetts body under leaves.

In a stunning twist, Bahena Rivera, who speaks little English, testified in his own defense at his trial, claiming he was kidnapped by two masked and armed men, who forced him to drive to where Tibbetts was jogging and one of them killed her and put her body in his car's trunk. He claimed he put Tibbetts' body in the cornfield, but did not go to the police because the kidnappers threatened to harm his ex-girlfriend, the mother of his young daughter, if he spoke to authorities.

Following Bahena Rivera's conviction, his attorneys received word from prosecutors that two independent witnesses came forward at the end of the trial claiming the same man told them that he killed Tibbetts after she had been abducted and taken to a sex-trafficking "trap house" in Sharon, Iowa.

The witnesses, including a prison inmate, claimed the man told them he killed Tibbetts on orders from a sex trafficker who feared police searching for Tibbetts were getting too close after they interviewed a resident next door to his trap house.

During Bahena Rivera's hearing for a new trial on July 27, prosecutors said the man the witnesses spoke of was in a rehab facility under court supervision at the time Tibbetts disappeared.

"The addition of evidence of an unrelated investigation alongside a dubious and divergent alleged confession would likely have confused the issues for the jury," Yates wrote. "The Court finds there is no reasonable probability of a different outcome at trial had the information been disclosed to the defense."

Last month, Yates rejected the motion to allow Bahena Rivera's attorneys an opportunity to review evidence in ongoing sex trafficking investigations in Poweshiek County and in the case of a missing 11-year-old boy, Xavior Harrelson, who vanished in May from his home in Poweshiek County. The defense attorneys suggested that the man who they allege operated the sex trafficking trap house once had been the boyfriend of Harrelson's mother.