DAVENPORT, Iowa – The Mexican national facing trial Monday for the fatal stabbing of a University of Iowa student has been portrayed by former President Donald Trump as a criminal who exploited lax immigration laws.
Legal experts say ensuring a fair trial for Cristhian Bahena Rivera, the farmhand charged with first-degree murder in the 2018 slaying of 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts, will be difficult given the extraordinary circumstances of the case.
Rivera’s arrest inflamed anger over illegal immigration ahead of the midterm elections, with Trump weighing in to declare Rivera guilty almost immediately and Iowa’s governor calling him a predator. The case also deepened anxieties about random violence against women, since Tibbetts was brutally attacked while going for a run in her small town of Brooklyn, Iowa.
Nearly three years later, the 26-year-old Rivera will participate in the trial through a Spanish-speaking interpreter as he faces a jury likely to be predominantly white, in a state that Trump carried in the 2020 election.
Jury selection will begin Monday at an events center in Davenport, where lawyers for both sides will work to whittle a 175-person jury pool to 12 jurors and three alternates. The trial is scheduled to last two weeks.
“This case has a double-edged problem with picking fair and impartial jurors. They can be overcome, but they are problems,” said former federal judge Mark Bennett, now a law professor at Drake University in Des Moines.
Tibbetts, a friendly woman who was working toward her dream of becoming a child psychologist, is an extremely likeable victim who “probably didn’t have an enemy in the world,” Bennett said. In addition, jurors will likely question Rivera’s immigration status because of his use of the interpreter, even if the judge doesn’t allow any mention that he illegally came to the U.S. as a teenager from Mexico, he said.
Lawyers outside the case say they are surprised that Judge Joel Yates only expects jury selection to take two days, and that both sides said they would not use an extended written questionnaire to learn more about jurors’ views on critical issues.
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Prospective jurors who admit to bias against noncitizens or non-English speakers could be disqualified, legal experts say. Trump supporters who remember his descriptions of Rivera as an “illegal alien” who came from Mexico to kill “an incredible, beautiful young woman” also may be blocked from hearing the case, they said.
Those who have posted opinions on social media about the highly publicized case will also have a problem serving. Female runners who were terrified by the crime and changed their routines are among the others who may have a hard time fairly judging the case.
“That seems like a really short time for jury selection, given the issues this case raises,” said Iowa defense lawyer Dan Vondra, who routinely represents Spanish-speaking clients. “Jury selection is the best way that I have seen to get people to open up and talk about their background. If you limit that dialogue, that’s where you run into the risk of having a mistake made.”
Yates has barred the public from the trial, citing COVID-19 restrictions, but it will be livestreamed by media outlets.
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Tibbetts went for her routine run in July 2018 through Brooklyn, population 1,700, where she ran cross country and excelled in speech during high school. She never made it back to the home where she was dog-sitting for her boyfriend and his brother, who were out of town.
Her disappearance triggered a massive search and investigation that featured hundreds of law enforcement officials and volunteers and drew extensive media coverage. Detectives say they zeroed in on Rivera a month later after obtaining surveillance video showing a dark Chevy Malibu appearing to circle Tibbetts as she ran, and a deputy later spotted him in town driving that vehicle.
A group of investigators that included U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents showed up at the dairy farm where Rivera worked to interview him and search his vehicles.
Rivera cooperated, initially denying involvement in Tibbetts’ disappearance. Federal agents put an immigration detainer on him during a lengthy interrogation. Hours later, investigators say he confessed to approaching Tibbetts as she ran, killing her in a panic after she threatened to call police and hiding her body in a cornfield. He allegedly led police to the body, which had been buried underneath leaves.
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An autopsy found that she died of sharp force injuries after she was stabbed to death, although investigators have not recovered a murder weapon. They say that DNA testing on blood found in the trunk of the vehicle showed it was a match for Tibbetts.
Rivera, the father of a young daughter, had no prior criminal history and worked long hours at the farm. His defense lawyers have not signaled publicly what their strategy will be, and they declined comment ahead of trial. If convicted, he faces life in prison without parole.
The trial was moved to Scott County — about 100 miles east of Brooklyn — after defense lawyers noted local residents had “very strong opinions” about Rivera’s guilt and Mexican nationality and were nearly all white. Scott County’s population is diverse by Iowa standards but still roughly 80% white and 7% Hispanic or Latino.
Trump seized on Rivera’s August 2018 arrest to argue for strengthening the nation’s “disgraceful” immigration laws, including by building a wall on the border with Mexico. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds expressed anger that “a broken immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community.”
The anti-immigrant backlash was swift. The prominent Republican family who employed and housed Rivera under an alias reported getting death threats. Robocalls linked to a white supremacist group blanketed Iowa calling for mass deportations. Immigrants, even many in the country legally, said they were afraid and avoided going out in public.
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The anger cooled after Tibbetts’ family members demanded politicians stop using her killing to promote a racist agenda that she would have opposed. They said immigrants should be treated as neighbors, not scapegoats.
“My clients tell me that her family’s speeches saved lives, that they might have prevented violent reprisals,” said Bram Elias, who directs an immigration practice at the University of Iowa law school. “In some ways it’s a sign of how effective they were that today we are thinking about how can he get a fair trial.”