Ensuring a Fair Trial for Mexican Farmhand Charged With Murder of Mollie Tibbetts Will be Difficult

FILE – In this Nov. 14, 2019, file photo, Cristhian Bahena Rivera appears for a hearing at the Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma, Iowa. Citing COVID-19 protocols, Judge Joel Yates said in an order dated Monday, May 10, 2021, that members of the public and news media will not be allowed inside the courtroom when Rivera’s trial starts next week. Rivera, 26, is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Mollie Tibbetts, 20, who disappeared in July 2018 while out for a run in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa. (Brian Powers/The Des Moines Register via AP File)/The Des Moines Register via AP)

Giving Cristhian Bahena Rivera, the Mexican farmhand charged in the fatal stabbing of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, a fair trial is not going to be an easy one considering the extraordinary circumstances of the case, legal experts say.

Hours after a lengthy interrogation, investigators say Rivera, who originally denied having anything to do with Tibbetts’ death, 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. DNA testing on blood found in the trunk of Rivera’s vehicle showed it was a match for Tibbetts.

Police picked up Rivera at the dairy farm where he worked a month after Tibbetts’ disappearance after gaining possession of surveillance video showing a dark Chevy Malibu circling Tibbetts as she took her routine run. He was later spotted in town driving the Chevy Malibu.

Rivera has several things that could work against him: he came to the U.S. illegally as a teenager; prospective jurors who admit to bias against non-citizens; Trump’s description of Rivera as “illegal alien” who came from Mexico to kill “an incredible, beautiful young woman.”

“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.

If convicted, Rivera faces life in prison without parole.


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