Defense lawyers for Mollie Tibbetts’ accused killer, Christian Bahena Rivera, argued Tuesday that investigators may have coerced a confession out of the farmhand, leading him to believe he had “blacked out” when he stabbed the University of Iowa student.
“What the evidence has shown you and what the evidence will show you is there was a systematic confrontation with my client… and the confrontation continued until it was put in my client’s head: Maybe you blacked out,” Jennifer Frese told jurors in Scott County Courthouse during Bahena Rivera’s first-degree murder trial.
Throughout the trial, prosecutors have argued that Bahena Rivera, a 26-year-old Mexican national who came to the U.S. illegally and worked at an Iowa dairy farm, fatally stabbed Tibbetts at least seven times on July 18, 2018, while she was out for an evening run. Over a month later, Tibbetts’ body was finally found when Bahena Rivera directed authorities to the cornfield where he allegedly hid her—after an 11-hour interrogation and a visit from federal immigration authorities.
While prosecutors have presented video evidence, DNA analysis, and over a dozen witnesses to methodically show that Bahena Rivera was the only person with Tibbetts the night of her murder, the crux of their case rests on his Aug. 20, 2018, confession.
“He admitted he had seen Mollie the night she disappeared… he admitted ‘she was hot,’ in his words,” Poweshiek County Attorney Bart Klaver told jurors during opening arguments last week. “He admitted to fighting with her… [and] taking her into the field and leaving her there, covering her with corn stalks.”
But Frese argued Tuesday that the confession was the result of Bahena Rivera’s exhaustion after a 12-hour shift at the dairy farm, relentless questions from interrogators who refused to let him see his family waiting outside the room, and his arrest for being undocumented.
“Your heart should break for Mollie Tibbetts. Your heart should break for her family. Her family deserves justice… but so does Christian Bahena Rivera,” Frese said. “We won’t just rely on the state to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. We intend to have witnesses, and that’s because you need to hear what they have to say.”
During her opening statement, which was delayed until after prosecutors rested their case on Monday, Frese described her client as a “man that immigrated here from Mexico” to help his family.
Iris Monarrez Gamboa, the mother of Bahena Rivera’s daughter, testified on his behalf on Tuesday—calling him a good father who continued to support the family even after they broke up. Alejandra Cervantes Valle, his aunt, also took the stand, stating that he was never violent and “all the children loved him.”
“He was a really good father,” Gamboa said. “He was responsible and he would always look after his daughter.”
Frese said that Bahena Rivera’s shy demeanor and “yes man” mentality prompted him to agree to speak with authorities on several different occasions during the Tibbetts investigation before he was ultimately asked to come to the police station.
“There’s no dispute that my client worked 12 hours at a dairy farm, scooping poop, cleaning down [the stalls], and at the end of the day he was brought to the Pow Co Sheriff’s Office,” Frese said.
Pamela Romero, a former Iowa police officer, testified last Thursday that she interviewed Bahena Rivera for 11 hours on Aug. 20, 2018, in connection with Tibbetts’ murder and that he “stayed and wanted to talk to me.”
She testified that Bahena Rivera initially denied knowing Tibbetts but eventually admitted video surveillance footage from a neighbor showed his black Chevy Malibu appearing to circle the young woman as she was running. Six hours into the interview, Bahena Rivera was arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Several hours after that, he confessed to “blacking out” and murdering Tibbetts, Frese said.
“He said that Mollie tried to slap him and was screaming at him,” Romero testified. “Mr. Rivera said this is when he became angry. He stated that when he gets angry, he usually blacks out.”
Romero said that while Bahena Rivera never described how he killed Tibbetts, he recalled driving his car with her body in his truck. Bahena Rivera then told her that he brought Tibbetts to a cornfield and dumped her body.
“At one point I asked him, ‘Was it the head, was it the forehead?’ and with a hand motion he showed the neck,” Romero said. “I asked him how her body felt against his body when he was carrying her, and he said it felt like a person who had just fainted.”
Ahead of the trial, Frese argued that Bahena Rivera’s confession should be tossed out of court, arguing it may have been false. District Court Judge Joel Yates denied that request but agreed to remove a portion of the interview footage in which Bahena Rivera was improperly informed of his rights.
The Iowa State Medical Examiner ultimately concluded that Tibbetts’ death was a “homicide resulting from multiple sharp force injuries.” Prosecutors argued that evidence suggests Bahena Rivera stabbed her seven to 12 times before dumping her body—though the murder weapon has never been found.
State Medical Examiner Dennis Klein testified Tuesday that Tibbetts suffered from at least nine stab wounds all consistent with one weapon. Blood was also found in Bahena Rivera’s case that matched Tibbetts’ DNA, prosecutors said.
Dr. Michael Spence, a DNA expert who used to work at the Indiana state crime lab, said that while Iowa investigators followed all the proper protocols when analyzing the blood samples, their results were “a little bit oversimplified.” He testified Tuesday that the state also found DNA contributors that did not match Bahena Rivera or Tibbetts in his trunk.
Frese argued Tuesday that investigators didn’t care about any issues with Bahena Rivera’s police interview because they “got what they needed.”
“There was an intense amount of pressure to arrest someone for this vicious crime,” Frese said, adding that after her client’s interview authorities stopped working the case. “What we ask you to do is listen to our case, fairly, to pay attention, and remember that each of you [has] the power to say no.”
To further sow doubt about the prosecution's case, Bahena Rivera's defense attorneys even offered jurors another possible suspect: Tibbett's boyfriend, Dalton Jack.
Jack, who testified on behalf of the prosecution, was recalled on Tuesday to the stand under subpoena where defense attorney Chad Frese asked him point-blank if he was involved in his girlfriend's death.
“I wouldn't harm her or any innocent person,” Jack said during the contentious exchange where Frese also asked him if he ever used “derogatory language toward Hispanics?” and if there was anything wrong with his memory.
In painstaking detail, Frese asked Jack to go through his relationship with Tibbetts, which prosecutors already established was rocky after Jack's previous infidelity. Jack insisted that he had planned to propose to Tibbetts—a level of commitment Frese said was odd considering phone records showed the pair barely spoke in the days before her death.
“Why did you only call the love of your life one time?” Frese asked Jack about his lack of action when Tibbetts went missing. “You weren't blowing up her phone?” Jack responded that he didn't know.