(IOWA CITY, Iowa) — Lawyers for Cristhian Bahena Rivera, who is charged with murder in the 2018 slaying of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, began presenting a defense on Tuesday, telling a jury that investigators were under intense pressure to solve the missing person case and alleging the investigators coerced a confession from the Mexican national farmworker.
Defense attorneys, who deferred their opening arguments until after the prosecution rested its case, began by attempting to undermine what prosecutors say is “overwhelming” evidence that the 26-year-old defendant is guilty of first-degree murder.
“This case is about Mollie Tibbetts. Your heart should break for Mollie Tibbetts. Your heart should break for her family. There should be justice,” Bahena Rivera’s lawyer, Jennifer Frese, told the jury of eight women and seven men. “But there should also be justice for Cristhian Bahena Rivera.”
Frese presented her statement to the jury a day after prosecutors wrapped up their case and Judge Joel Yates denied her request to acquit Bahena Rivera after she argued the state had not met its burden to prove her client guilty of premeditated first-degree murder beyond a reasonable doubt.
Bahena Rivera’s immigration status
Early on in her presentation, Frese tackled the issue of Bahena Rivera’s status as an undocumented immigrant, telling the jury he came to the United States seven years ago to seek a better life so he could support his family in Mexico.
“You can agree with it. You can not agree with it. You can be Republican, or you can be Democrat. But the evidence here that you must decide, the evidence here that you must rely on, has nothing to do with that side issue,” Frese said. “What we ask you to do is when you evaluate the evidence, to set that aside. It’s not part of the case. It’s not part of the elements.”
She honed on the interrogation by investigators of Bahena Rivera in August 2018, about a month after Tibbetts vanished while out for a jog in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa, in Poweshiek County.
Frese said that after working at a dairy farm near Brooklyn for 12 hours, Bahena Rivera was interrogated by investigators for 11 hours until he implicated himself in Tibbetts’ abduction and killing.
She called Bahena Rivera as “yes man,” someone who would readily agree to chores such as cleaning out livestock stables.
Frese called the questioning by investigators of Bahena Rivera a “systematic confrontation,” where they warmed up to him by asking about his family, his work and his life in Mexico before confronting him with evidence that his black Chevrolet Malibu was seen in surveillance video circling a neighborhood at the time Tibbetts was spotted jogging in the same location.
The defense attorney noted that after a month of hitting dead ends in the case, the investigators were under an intense amount of pressure “to close the case, to arrest someone for this vicious crime.”
“And the confrontation continues until it was put in my client’s head: ‘Perhaps you blacked out,"” Frese said.
Earlier in the trial, Pamela Romero, a former Iowa City police officer, who was asked to help interview Bahena Rivera because she speaks Spanish, testified for the prosecution that after 11 hours of questioning, Bahena Rivera led investigators to a cornfield where they found Tibbetts’ badly decomposed body on Aug. 21, 2018.
She testified that Rivera told her he “blacks out” when he gets angry and could not say how Tibbetts ended up stabbed repeatedly and allegedly in the trunk of his car.
Romero testified that Bahena Rivera allegedly told her he drove to a cornfield, where he placed Tibbetts’ lifeless body face-up, covered her with leaves and left.
Frese told the jury on Tuesday that investigators “closed the case” and did not look for other suspects after interviewing Bahena Rivera.
“Instead of continuing to work the case, instead of continuing to work the evidence, they just submitted it to you,” Frese told the jury. “What we ask you to do is to listen to our case and to pay attention, and that each one of you has the power to say, ‘No."”
Defense DNA expert testifies
The first witness called for the defense was Michael Spence, a paid expert DNA witness and a former forensic scientist for the Indiana State Police.
Spence testified that while crime scene investigators recovered Tibbetts’ DNA and the defendant’s DNA from the trunk of Bahena Rivera’s car, multiple unaccounted sources of DNA were also found in the trunk.
“It’s clear that they’re there,” Spence said, adding that it remains unknown how the unaccounted-for sources of DNA got into the trunk.
He testified that investigators only had DNA matches for Tibbetts and Bahena Rivera and never pursued who the rest of the DNA belonged to.
Under cross-examination, Spence said he had “no issues” with how the DNA evidence in the case was collected and analyzed, testifying that investigators, in his opinion, appeared to have properly followed their protocols and practices.
‘He was not violent’
Bahena Rivera’s aunt, Alejandra Cervantes, testified for the defense that her nephew was sending money back to Mexico to support his parents and siblings there.
“He was the one who was sending money so they could eat. He was the one sending money so they could build a house,” Cervantes said.
She testified that in the seven years she has known Bahena Rivera since he came to the United States, she never saw him get angry or fight.
“No, he was not violent,” Cervantes said.
Iris Gamboa, Bahena Rivera’s former girlfriend and the mother of his 5-year-old daughter, Paulina, testified that Bahena Rivera paid her about $500 a month in child support and would also spend his days off work with their daughter.
She testified that while they would argue, he was never violent with her.
“He was a really good father,” Gamboa testified. “He was responsible, and he would take care of his daughter.”
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