Judge denies Cristhian Bahena Rivera's request for a new trial in Mollie Tibbetts case
The judge's ruling Monday cleared the way for Bahena's sentencing to proceed Aug. 30, after he was convicted in May of first-degree murder in the former University of Iowa student's death.
A judge has rejected a motion to retry Cristhian Bahena Rivera in the death of Mollie Tibbetts, clearing the path for him to be sentenced in the Brooklyn woman's 2018 murder.
Bahena, a farmhand, was convicted of first-degree murder after a two-week trial in May despite claiming on the stand that two masked men had coerced him into assisting them with Tibbetts' murder. In July, his attorneys asked that he be granted a new trial, saying new evidence pointed to new possible suspects.
At a lengthy hearing July 27, they argued that Tibbetts' death might have been connected to another woman's alleged sex trafficking in a neighboring county, as well as the May 2021 disappearance of 11-year-old Xavior Harrelson of Montezuma.
In his order Monday, Judge Joel Yates denied that motion.
The two new witnesses, who each claimed a man named Gavin Jones had confessed to them he had been the killer, came forward during the trial, and prosecutors informed the defense and offered to delay the trial to investigate.
Although the two sides disagree on exactly what information was conveyed — a fact that "obfuscates the Court’s analysis," as Yates put it — the judge wrote that the defense clearly knew enough to make the informed decision not to pause the trial to seek new witnesses that, as Yates points out, would have significantly contradicted the defendant's testimony.
Bahena's motion "greatly downplays the discrepancies between his testimony at trial and the account that (new witness Arne Maki) reports he was told by Jones," Yates wrote. "For example, the specific details about how Mollie Tibbetts was murdered are vastly different."
"Had both versions of events been presented at trial, the jury would have had to make a credibility determination not between the State’s witnesses and those of the defense, which is a typical scenario, but between the Defendant and his own witness," he added later.
Bahena's attorneys had also argued prosecutors failed to turn over favorable evidence in the form of a 2019 investigation into a man accused of sex trafficking in nearby Mahaska County. Prosecutors are obligated to provide any evidence favoring the defense under a U.S. Supreme Court case known as Brady v. Maryland.
Yates agreed that prosecutors had not provided evidence about the Mahaska County investigation to the defense, and that such information might have bolstered Bahena's case. But to be a Brady violation, the evidence in question must be "material" to the question of guilt, and Yates said there's no reason to believe it would have changed the case's outcome.
"Defendant’s trial strategy included casting doubt onto other individuals, such as Dalton Jack and Ron Pexa," Yates wrote. "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 of change the result of trial."
Bahena was originally scheduled to be sentenced July 15, but the proceeding was postponed to let the court consider his motion for a new trial. With that settled, the court has set a new sentencing date of Aug. 30, where Bahena faces a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
Bahena's attorneys, Chad and Jennifer Frese, could not immediately be reached for comment.
William Morris covers courts for the Des Moines Register. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, 715-573-8166 or on Twitter at @DMRMorris.