News Analysis

Hispanic Juror: Mollie Tibbetts' killer convicted on evidence, not immigration status

The defense attorneys for Cristhian Bahena Rivera brought up their client’s migration status in court to try and garner jury sympathy.
Nick Monroe
Nick Monroe Cleveland, Ohio
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The trial of Derek Chauvin seemingly exhausted the general public on the issue of race relations in the criminal justice system. However, another recently concluding high-profile case shows there’s still hope for the courts of the USA.

The power of video footage was central to the George Floyd case almost entirely. But with the case of Mollie Tibbetts, it was the only strand of a meaningful lead provided. After a month of searching with the unlimited power of Trump’s government, authorities were exhausted.

All the king’s horses and all the kings’ men couldn’t surpass a single ginger resident living in the right place at the right time.

It was Logan Collins that provided the breakthrough evidence in the Mollie Tibbetts case. His surveillance footage documented both her on an evening jog, as well as a black Malibu that we’d come to find out belonged to Cristhian Bahena Rivera.

It was in the 30-day window of recording that authorities discovered their lead. Collins himself wasn’t sure when in mid-August 2018 the police contacted him for his footage. But the Poweshiek County Sheriff's Deputy who spotted Bahena Rivera’s black Malibu (when the search was out for it) said they found it on August 16th, 2018.

So it really came down to the final days of searching.

Someone on the jury remarked about it to me:

“They were literally days away from losing the footage that gave them the case. If they would have been lazy, took a long weekend, or just overlooked that location when collecting camera evidence, there'd be no vehicle of interest, no arrest, no trial, no conviction, and no idea what happened to Mollie.”

After seven days of testimony, an Iowa jury found 26-year-old Cristhian Bahena Rivera guilty of first-degree murder in the death of 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts. The University of Iowa student went out on a run on July 18th, 2018 in the rural town of Brooklyn and never came back.

In the early morning hours of August 21st Bahena Rivera led authorities to her body.

The prosecution called 19 witnesses while the defense had 11, in a trial that took place at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport, Iowa.

I had the chance to speak to Juror 10. A Hispanic man (and registered Democrat) who was fairly annoyed about how the media’s reporting of the trial made it seem like Bahena Rivera didn’t get a fair shake. He was one of four Hispanic people, alongside three other women.

Juror 10 wants you all to know that Cristhian Bahena Rivera was convicted on evidence and not based on personality or identity politics. That the process was done by the book.

Bahena Rivera got better treatment from the judge in comparison to Derek Chauvin’s trial. The court moved proceedings 100 miles away from Poweshiek County to Scott County. The request for a change of venue was granted on the grounds of pretrial publicity. Despite rejections made by a case like Derek Chauvin’s after just one year, it was decided that a "fair and impartial jury cannot reasonably be selected in Poweshiek County" after three years.

FBI agent Kevin Horan testified in court how Mollie’s cell phone signal showed her on her usual jogging path, going eastward. It started with someone on a brisk jog. At 8:35 PM that night the phone jolted south at speeds of 60 miles per hour and stopped moving somewhere in Poweshiek County at 8:53 PM, before going completely dead.

The prosecution had a trinity of evidence: the surveillance footage of Bahena Rivera’s car near Tibbetts, Bahena Rivera’s confession to investigators, and the fact that Mollie’s blood (DNA) was found in the trunk of his car.

"Anytime you have a client who gives a statement like he did, and the fact that there was DNA evidence in the trunk and the fact that he led them to the body, it makes it extraordinarily difficult," said Bahena Rivera’s defense lawyer Chad Frese.

The Logan Collins home security footage from the night of Mollie Tibbetts’ disappearance showed both her for a brief second, as well as a black Chevrolet Malibu twenty seconds later. A sheriff’s deputy managed to identify Bahena Rivera from the vehicle and investigators brought him in for questioning. The car’s chrome mirrors and door handles reportedly made it stand out from other cars on the Malibu lineup.

On the night of August 20th, 2018, Former Iowa City Police Officer Pamela Romero conducted an 11-hour interview. She spoke fluent Spanish and said showing the surveillance footage got Bahena Rivera to crack. He told Romero about leaving Mollie’s body in a cornfield.

Bahena Rivera initially denied knowing who Mollie Tibbetts was. But once Romero showed him a photo of his car taken from surveillance video he admitted to his involvement. Bahena Rivera thought she was attractive and followed her.

The authorities took Bahena Rivera into custody and in the early hours of August 21st, he led them to the field where Mollie’s body was. In the car with Officer Romero, Bahena Rivera confessed to the rest of the story. The night of Mollie’s disappearance he stopped his car to jog alongside her. Tibbetts was freaked out by this, she threatened to call the cops, and Bahena Rivera got angry and the two fought. He then blacked out.

The next thing Romero says Bahena Rivera remembered was having Tibbetts’ body in his trunk.

“His answer was ‘I brought you here, didn’t I? So that means I did it. I don’t remember how I did,’” Romero told the court.

Bahena Rivera admitted in court that he was the only one who could take police to the body of Mollie Tibbetts.

His legal status to work in the US was disputed.

“A search of records by USCIS revealed Bahena Rivera did not make any DACA requests nor were any grants given. We have found no record in our systems indicating he has any lawful immigration status,” USCIS spokesman Michael J. Bars said at the time of his arrest.

It came out that Cristhian Bahena Rivera presented a stolen ID. His employer at Yarrabee Farms initially claimed he passed the E-Verify check. Yet, they later walked that statement back, as it turned out that the farm owners did the background check through the Social Security Administration instead.

The prosecution focused on the evidence of the crime scene to Bahena Rivera’s involvement in their closing arguments. The defense tried to say Bahena Rivera gave police a false confession. That he was a “hard-working immigrant from Mexico who crossed the border illegally as a teenager in search of a better life and who was pressured into confessing to the slaying.”

The defense’s closing argument included framing Bahena Rivera’s “John Budd” identity (being in America illegally), and having to work under it, as a reason that Bahena Rivera would want to stay off the radar of law enforcement.

It wasn’t expected that Cristhian Bahena Rivera would testify at all. But on Wednesday, May 26th he denied responsibility for the stab wounds found on Tibbett’s body. Bahena Rivera spoke in Spanish and had the help of a translator.

Bahena Rivera’s completely new story (that shocked even the prosecution) contradicted the statements he made to Officer Romero in that initial 11-hour interview.

People criticized Donald Trump for using the term 'coyote' in the 2020 debates against Joe Biden. However Bahena Rivera’s own defense team asked him how he crossed the border illegally, and that was his response. He hired a coyote to guide him.

This last-minute attempt also involved admitting: the car seen in the surveillance video was his, that she did end up in his trunk, and that Bahena Rivera was the one that hid Mollie’s body in a cornfield for a whole month without telling anyone.

Juror 10 thought this was all unnecessary and it worked against the defendant’s favor. It didn’t help that Bahena Rivera’s placement of Tibbetts contradicted the surveillance footage.

“Going back to the defense's case, they had a few interesting choices that made for some interesting questions about police procedure, the scope of their investigation, and potential sloppiness in their methods of investigation. But the defendant's testimony overshadowed all of that. It sounded like a bad lie. It destroyed his credibility with the jury. I feel bad for the defense. They did good work. Their closing was great. At least two jurors said they went back and forth at the closing statements for the state and defense.”

Bahena Rivera testified that two men entered his trailer at Yarrabee Farms on the night of July 18th, 2018. The defendant said he got out of the shower to find two men covered from head-to-toe in clothing on a hot summer night. One was armed with a gun, the other a knife. The two men used these to get Bahena Rivera to drive his car and hunt down Mollie Tibbetts.

At one point Bahena Rivera was alone with the man with the gun. At which point he claims the man said “come on, Jack.” In a way meant to implicate Dalton Jack.

However, the police cleared Mollie’s boyfriend and the brother as having a proper alibi.

Dalton Jack wasn’t a perfect boyfriend (defense tried painting him as disloyal), but things turned around enough that he was going to propose to Mollie Tibbetts before she vanished. He said he didn’t want to be in the same room as Bahena Rivera when he came to court to testify.

The night she disappeared, witnesses confirmed that Dalton Jack was two hours away working on a bridge project in Dubuque, Iowa. After work, Jack testified he drank beers with co-workers and slept at a hotel that night.

The following day, Dalton Jack directly told his former supervisor Nick Wilson that he hadn’t heard from Mollie and was worried something happened to her. Despite that, Bahena Rivera’s defense lawyer tried claiming that Dalton’s last text to Tibbetts about his cell data not working properly was suspicious.

“What do you do if you’re not getting along with your girlfriend? You break up with her. You don’t take her out in the country and stab her to death, that make sense to you? Goodness” responded Prosecutor Scott Brown.

"Some of this investigation was sloppy, but it really got sloppy when Cristhian Bahena Rivera was targeted. They closed a case, but they didn't solve a case," argued defense lawyer Chad Frese.

Bahena Rivera claimed these two men killed Mollie and he was left to bury her under some corn stalks in the field. He said he kept quiet because the men threatened his family.

The prosecution said that Bahena Rivera’s testimony ended up helping their case.

Juror 10 agreed:

“In the jury room, the first thing we did was elect the foreman, eat our cold lunch, and then start with reasonable doubt. The two-man theory was at the top of the list of "reasonable doubt" scenarios. There wasn't a single soul in that room that bought it. At least not fully. Three people were convinced that parts of it were plausible. But nobody thought for a second the story held water. My notes on the subject were destroyed, but if I could keep any section, it would have been that one.”

“The ABC letter was handed to me by a blond woman who moved around us as we were being escorted from the courthouse. The press was set up at the front entrance to the courthouse, and the Sheriff's deputies escorted us out a staff entrance/exit on the side of the building connected to the Scott County Jail. The media person who handed me the letter was respectful not to ask any questions and stated that she was only supposed to hand us the letter, which is all she did.”

This also explains the vague wording of the letter itself.

At least one juror took ABC up on their offer. Foreman juror Robert Reed interviewed with Good Morning America. He had fair reason to believe the two weeks of the trial were emotional. Even more than the rest given his status as the group leader.

It took the group seven hours over the course of days to deliberate the verdict. But Reed is confident that they went over everything by the book. They put emotions aside to look at the facts.

In the Derek Chauvin case, on the other hand, testimony from at least one alternate juror made it clear how emotions were at an all-time high. However, just like that trial, the prosecution and defense for the Mollie Tibbetts murder had a pool of 175 potential jurors narrowed down to 37 candidates, who both sides got to interview.

According to The Daily Iowan, at least one juror showed pity on Bahena Rivera. “It’s supposed to be a jury of your peers. It doesn’t really look that way.”

However, it did end up that way. The quote refers to eleven of the jurors appearing to be white. Eight women and seven men. According to Juror 10, the three alternates “were white women, ages 30+.”

The person who spoke to The Daily Iowan was apparently wrong. There were eight white people and four Hispanic jurors overseeing the trial of Bahena Rivera. It also contradicts the reporting of the Associated Press, claiming it was just three.

So the representation for Bahena Rivera was four Hispanics, eight white people. A third of the decision-makers of his fate.

I repeatedly asked Juror 10 if he was sure that there were four Hispanics. He reiterated the answer to that was yes, and managed to get to know each of the other Hispanic jury members well enough to qualify that statement.

Juror 10 assures me that nobody in the courtroom at any point treated him differently because of his race. In fact, at one point District Court Judge Joel Yates went out of his way to protect everyone on the jury.

On Day 3 of the trial, May 21st, Judge Yates intervened in a fiasco involving a Daily Iowan photographer breaking courtroom protocols.

Someone from the student newspaper run out of the University of Iowa took pictures of the jury despite the court’s instructions not to do that.

“On the day the photos of the victim's body were presented to the jury, a photojournalist for the Daily Iowan broke that rule and began taking pictures of the jurors as the victim's body was being displayed on the court monitors. A juror spoke up about this at the break of the session, and the Judge dismissed us while keeping the photojournalist in the courtroom. When we returned from our break, the judge spoke to us personally about the incident. He stated that the photojournalist had her credential taken, was made to delete all the photos she had taken in the presence of court staff and had the memory card from her camera taken. He also thanked the juror for speaking up. Later it was revealed second-hand that the judge had indicated that he could have jailed the photojournalist.”

The episode was summarized in an article on Des Moines Register.  Through their reporting we can further gather that: the photojournalist she was doing what her editor wanted by photographing the jury at a serious moment, and by request of the Judge they don't want the person involved named. Since it seemed like she wasn't aware of the routine rules of photographing the jury.

Judge Yates did specify the person worked for Daily Iowan. The outlet did not respond to a request for comment.

That wasn't the only media ruckus that happened during the course of the trial.

The courtroom had COVID regulations that only allowed three reporters in the courtroom at a time. But not everyone got the memo, according to Juror 10. On the first day of the trial, an unknown male member of the press was irate that he couldn’t get in. A female court staff member responsible for “wrangling” the jury had to tell this man to get proper clearance multiple times. The reporter demanded (loud enough for the courtroom to hear) that she talk to the judge about it, and she had to tell him multiple times “that’s not my job.”

That takes us to the issue of the media and what their job is.

Trump was right. Cristhian Bahena Rivera cheated the immigration system. People being annoyed that Trump pointed this out doesn’t change the facts. The search for Mollie Tibbetts in itself caused a lot of this. It went on for several weeks and even had an official .gov website set up for the effort.

As pointed out by Washington Examiner it was outlets like AP, CNN, Daily Beast, and the New York Times that opted for the “farmworker” label to describe Cristhian Bahena Rivera. Thereby completely glossing over the fact he came to America illegally from Mexico as a teenager.

But according to Rob Tibbetts in an op-ed in the Des Moines Register, that’s apparently what Mollie would’ve wanted. He said that his daughter wouldn’t have wanted to be used as part of a debate on immigration.

There were people other than Trump who made that a point. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, for one.

Iowa Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst said "too many Iowans have been lost at the hands of criminals who broke our immigration laws. We cannot allow these tragedies to continue,” in a statement.

Bahena Rivera is set to be sentenced on July 15th. There are plans on appealing the verdict, which in itself includes a mandatory life sentence without any chance of parole.

More recently a request for a mistrial was denied. The defense motioned for one because a witness for the prosecution had watched livestream coverage of the trial. But the judge didn’t think it prejudiced the testimony of the person in question.

Otherwise, that’s the end of it until it happens again. Now former President Trump can’t be blamed for the record-setting migration arrivals. As seen under the Biden administration for March and April 2021.

What else is there to say? Trump supported the Angel Mom victims to migration-related deaths of family members. But now we’ve got Vice-President Harris traveling to Guatemala. It’s there that she’s working to reassure Americans that the Biden administration has got the border crisis under control.


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