Cristhian Bahena Rivera, a 26-year-old undocumented farm worker, was convicted of first degree murder on Friday in the kidnapping and fatal stabbing of student Mollie Tibbetts in July 2018.
The verdict comes nearly three years after the body of a 20-year-old woman was found in an Iowa cornfield.
Rivera, wearing headphones as interpreters translated the decision, stood up and nodded slightly as the verdict was read.
The sentence was set for July 15.
An Iowa jury has returned a verdict in the murder trial of Cristhian Bahena Rivera, a farm worker accused of kidnapping and stabbing 20-year-old student Mollie Tibbetts to death in July 2018.
The verdict is expected to be announced shortly.
Bahena Rivera, a 26-year-old undocumented Mexican immigrant, admitted in an interview with police in August 2018 that he followed Tibbetts as she went out for an evening race, got angry against her and “fainted,” according to an arrest warrant. and testimony at trial. He said he came later and realized she was bleeding from the trunk of his vehicle and then buried him in an isolated cornfield in Iowa, prosecutors said.
Bahena Rivera then led police to the cornfield, where investigators found her body fatally injured from a gun, prosecutors said.
But in her testimony on Wednesday, Bahena Rivera – speaking through an interpreter – told a very different story. He said two mysterious masked men kidnapped him, forced him into their plot to kill Tibbetts, threatened his family and told him to remain silent.
In closing arguments, prosecutor Scott Brown rejected this testimony and said it did not fit the evidence.
“There weren’t two other guys.” It’s the fruit of his imagination, ”Brown told jurors. “All the credible evidence in this case points to it.” »
Defense attorney Chad Frese said the prosecution had no crime weapons, no crime scenes, no eyewitnesses, no confessions, no motives and no scientific evidence to prove his client’s guilt. He said Bahena Rivera’s original statements to investigators were made under duress during an 11-hour interrogation.
“We believe Cristhian’s ‘confession’ or statement was inaccurate or false,” Frese said.
The lawsuit comes nearly three years after Tibbetts disappeared after a race in Brooklyn, Iowa, sparking an extensive search that has gained national attention. The case went to the jury on Thursday.
She had studied psychology at the University of Iowa and wanted to get a doctorate and write books, her father said. Bahena Rivera, meanwhile, had worked for four years at Yarrabee Farms, a nearby dairy farm.
Her death and Rivera’s undocumented status pushed the tragic story into the resentful partisan political debate around immigration. Former President Donald Trump has spoken of his story as part of his efforts to denigrate undocumented immigrants as rapists and killers, although existing evidence shows undocumented status does not correlate with criminality.
Rob Tibbetts, Mollie’s father, has repeatedly called on politicians to stop using his daughter’s death to make arguments against immigration, saying she believes these views are “deeply racist.”
Surprise testimony on masked men
The prosecution based its case on three key aspects: surveillance video of Bahena Rivera’s vehicle near Tibbetts, her confession to investigators in August 2018 and her DNA found in her trunk.
“When you put this evidence together, there can be no conclusion other than that the accused killed Mollie Tibbetts,” Poweshiek County District Attorney Bart Klaver said at the start of the trial.
After more than a month of research, the breakdown of the case came when a home surveillance video on the night of July 18, 2018 spotted the silhouette of a woman running – along with repeated sightings. of a black Chevy Malibu, prosecutors said. . An investigator later spotted the vehicle and identified the driver as Bahena Rivera, Klaver said.
After initially denying knowing Tibbetts, he later admitted he saw her the night he went missing, said he found her attractive and said he came back for a second look, Klaver said to the jury. He reportedly admitted to following Tibbetts and jogging beside her. She had threatened to call the police and Rivera admitted he got mad and got into a fight with her, Klaver told court.
“The next thing he remembers” was driving and realizing that Tibbetts was in his trunk, Klaver said. Rivera reportedly admitted that he took her bloodied body out of the trunk, carried her to a field and placed corn stalks on her body, according to Klaver.
He then led investigators to the scene, where his body was found hidden under corn stalks, prosecutors said.
Although Bahena Rivera did not explicitly tell investigators that he stabbed Tibbetts, prosecutors said that was the only finding.
“He says he’s passed out. He did not pass out. He just didn’t tell (to an investigator), ”Brown said Thursday.
“He said to the officers, saying these statements, ‘I killed Mollie Tibbetts.’ This is what he says. This is what all the statements suggest, ”he added.
Bahena Rivera’s testimony in her own defense on Wednesday, however, strongly contradicted her earlier confession.
He testified that he was taking a shower when two masked strangers barged into his trailer and asked for his help. One had a knife and the other a gun, he said.
He testified that they got into his black Chevy Malibu and told him to head for town. It was then that he said they had met a young woman he now knew was Tibbetts.
Bahena Rivera testified that she was told to stop as the man with the knife exited the car. He said the two men then got out of the vehicle and heard them opening and closing the trunk. When the men left, he said he found Tibbetts’ body in the trunk of the car. He said he took her body out of the trunk, placed it in a cornfield, and covered its body with corn stalks.
Bahena Rivera said he did not know why the men asked for his help. He testified that he falsely confessed to police because he feared the men would harm his daughter and ex-girlfriend and because he believed telling investigators what they wanted to hear would help him.
CNN’s Carma Hassan contributed to this report.