An Iowa jury on Friday convicted farmhand Cristhian Bahena Rivera of first-degree murder in the 2018 killing of college student Mollie Tibbetts, whose slaying became a hot-button political issue.
The panel in Davenport deliberated for seven hours over two days before coming back with the verdict against Rivera, the 24-year-old Mexican national who led investigators to Tibbetts’ body in a Brooklyn, Iowa, cornfield nearly one month after she went jogging July 18 and vanished.
Tibbetts had been stabbed between seven and 12 times in the chest, ribs, neck and skull, according to the prosecution.
Rivera, wearing a white shirt and headphones to hear court proceedings translated from English to Spanish, showed no emotion as the single verdict was announced.
He could have been convicted of second-degree murder or manslaughter, but once jurors agreed on guilt on the top charge, those lesser options became moot.
District Court Judge Joel Yates ordered Rivera into custody with no bail and set his sentencing for July 15.
Deputies handcuffed Rivera and took him back to jail, as his defense lawyers and prosecutors cordially shook hands.
“To get to this point, it’s been a long time coming,” Poweshiek County Attorney Bart Klaver told reporters. “It’s like a weight, I think, off of everyone’s shoulders. To get the result that we did punctuates that a little more.”
Klaver and Assistant Attorney General Scott Brown said they met with the Tibbetts’ loved ones late Friday afternoon after court.
“They’re relieved, they’re pleased with the verdict,” Brown said. “We just wish them the best.”
Defense lawyers Chad and Jennifer Frese both thanked jurors for their work and accepted the verdict.
The panel consisted of seven men and five women, who ranged in age from 19 to 71. There were nine white people and three of Hispanic or Latino descent.
“In this case we’re very pleased that the jury took the time that they did to look at the evidence and to deliberate,” Jennifer Frese said. “It would be impossible to find a jury that hadn’t heard about this case.”
The first-degree murder conviction, which carries a maximum penalty of life behind bars, didn’t surprise MSNBC legal analyst Cynthia Alksne, a former federal prosecutor.
“He led them to the body and he confessed that he blacked out during the critical time and he was on the video stalking her, circling her in his car. All those things together” made for a strong case, she said.
Early in the trial, defense lawyers had tried to infer that Tibbetts’ boyfriend, Dalton Jack, was unfaithful and struggled with anger issues. But the boyfriend was working at a construction job more than 100 miles away in Dubuque when Tibbett went missing, witnesses said.
“Dalton Jack did not do this. He did not commit this murder. He was raked across the coals at trial. I thought he actually handled himself pretty well,” Brown said. “The person that did this was convicted.”
The prosecutor added: “It (blaming Jack) didn’t work because there’s no evidence that supported it.”
Then, in a stunning move by the defense Wednesday, Rivera took the witness stand in his own defense and testified that two masked men were responsible for the crime but forced him to take part at gunpoint.
Chad and Jennifer Frese said their client told them about the masked men when they first met him nearly three years ago.
“He had never varied from that version of events, not one detail,” Chad Frese said following the verdict on Friday. “So we had to get something up there. We thought the jury needed to hear directly from him.”
Jennifer Frese said the tale of the masked attackers wasn’t made up at a later, desperate hour.
“If we were going to make something up, we would have come up with something better than that,” she said.
Still, Alksne said the defendant’s testimony did more harm than good.
“It was pathetic,” she said. “You can’t have a double defense like that, all that did was make the jury more want to convict. He’d been better off remaining silent than all of that goofiness.”
Tibbetts’ family pushed back against that narrative and pleaded with politicians not to invoke the University of Iowa student’s name to advance an anti-immigration agenda.
“Sadly, others have ignored our request. They have instead chosen to callously distort and corrupt Mollie’s tragic death to advance a cause she vehemently opposed. I encourage the debate on immigration; there is great merit in its reasonable outcome,” her father, Rob Tibbetts, wrote in the Des Moines Register.
“But do not appropriate Mollie’s soul in advancing views she believed were profoundly racist.”