Judge denies new trial request in Mollie Tibbetts case

A judge on Monday rejected a convicted man’s request for a new trial in the 2018 killing of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, whose body was found in a cornfield weeks after she disappeared while out for a run near her small hometown.

Judge Joel Yates’ ruling cleared the way for sentencing to proceed Aug. 30 in the trial of Cristhian Bahena Rivera, who was convicted in May of first-degree murder in Tibbetts’ death. The former farmhand, who came to the U.S. illegally as a teenager, faces a sentence of life in prison.

During questioning by police, Bahena Rivera acknowledged that he encountered Tibbetts as she was running near her small eastern Iowa hometown of Brooklyn and he led investigators to the field where her body lay hidden under cornstalks.

But during his trial, he claimed publicly for the first time that two masked men kidnapped him at gunpoint from his trailer, forced him to drive to where Tibbetts was running on a rural road, killed her, put her body in his trunk and made him dispose of it. He said he didn’t tell investigators about the two men earlier because they had threatened to kill his ex-girlfriend and young daughter.

Bahena Rivera was to be sentenced last month. But toward the end of the testimony portion of his trial, two new witnesses came forward independently of one another and told police that a local 21-year-old man told them he had killed Tibbetts. Defense lawyers requested a new trial based on that and other newly discovered information, and Yates agreed to postpone sentencing while he considered their request.

At a hearing last week, Bahena Rivera’s lawyers sought to link Tibbetts’ death to another young woman’s report of having been kidnapped and sexually assaulted at an area home used for sex trafficking in the summer of 2018, and the recent disappearance of an 11-year-old boy from the same county. A 50-year-old suspected methamphetamine dealer has been investigated in both cases but hasn’t been charged in either, and prosecutors say he has no ties to Tibbetts.

Prosecutors have said they were confident that Bahena Rivera killed Tibbetts and they pointed out that his own account of what happened didn’t align with what the two new witnesses told police.