Three years ago, Mollie Tibbetts went out for a run.
The 20-year-old University of Iowa student, who described herself as silly and a good listener, vanished during that July 18, 2018, run near her Brooklyn, Iowa, home.
Her disappearance kicked off a massive search effort by hundreds of volunteers and drew national attention, including from President Donald Trump. The search ended more than a month later with the discovery of her body and the arrest of a local farmhand, Cristhian Bahena Rivera, on charges of first-degree murder.
Now, after years of legal work and many delays, Bahena Rivera’s case is about to go to trial. Jury selection began Monday in Davenport, where the trial will be held at the Scott County Courthouse.
A case with such a high profile comes with additional challenges for the parties, judge and jurors, experts say.
“As a judge, you have to worry about that because you’re worried about being reversed — you don’t want to try this case twice,” said Bob Rigg, a Drake University professor and longtime criminal defense attorney. “You want to try it once and be done with the case — and how it comes out, it comes out.”
Bahena Rivera’s attorneys declined the Des Moines Register’s interview requests, citing their ongoing preparations for the trial. A spokesperson for the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, which is assisting with the prosecution, would comment only on the timeline of the trial, saying the state has about 20 witnesses and expects to begin presenting its case Wednesday, hopefully wrapping up by Monday, May 24. The trial is expected to run from May 17 to 28.
The search for Mollie Tibbetts captivated the nation. Her suspected killer’s trial starts next week. Here’s what you need to know.
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In the years since Bahena Rivera was charged, the trial has already been moved twice: initially from Poweshiek County, where Tibbetts disappeared, to Woodbury County, and then later to Scott County. Defense attorneys made the initial request for a new venue, and prosecutors didn’t object.
“The death of Mollie Tibbetts has touched many of the residents of Poweshiek County and her death has significantly and emotionally affected many of the residents of the county and prospective jurors, making it extremely difficult to obtain a fair and impartial jury,” prosecutors wrote in a March 2019 court filing.
Emotions about the case may be less raw in Davenport, given how long the case has been pending, but finding the right jury will still be challenging, said Alfredo Parrish, a Des Moines attorney who has defended a number of high-profile cases around Iowa.
More on Bahena Rivera’s trial:Judge OKs broadcast, limits attendance at the trial of the man charged with killing Mollie Tibbetts
Even questioning prospective jurors about what they know is tricky, since the attorneys won’t want members of the jury pool to hear about the case from each other, either.
“Making sure these jurors who know something about the case don’t contaminate the other jurors is a big concern,” Parrish said. “So they’re going to have to give instructions fairly early on about how not to talk about the case.”
At a pretrial conference Thursday, the parties agreed that the court will call a panel of 175 potential jurors for the case. The attorneys will question three groups of 12, 12 and 13 jurors, and replace any who are removed for cause from the larger pool so that, at the end of questioning, there will be a group of 37 that can be whittled down to 12 jurors plus alternates.
Another wrinkle Parrish foresees, given the pandemic: What will the court do with potential jurors who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19?
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Given the widespread media coverage of Tibbetts’ disappearance and Bahena Rivera’s arrest, the court may need a larger than usual jury pool to find enough impartial jurors to impanel. Jury selection will take place Monday and Tuesday at a Davenport convention center, moving to the courthouse once the jury has been finalized.
“You’re going to have to draw bigger numbers, and then you impose COVID restrictions on top of all that, and it turns into a bit of a nightmare,” Rigg said.
Those COVID-19 restrictions will remain in place once the trial moves into the actual courtroom. The judge has ruled that, aside from remotely operated television cameras and a single photographer, there will be no room for members of the public or media in the courtroom.
Jurors will be spread throughout the room to maintain social-distancing measures, and everyone except witnesses and the attorneys questioning them will wear face coverings throughout the proceedings.
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Once the jury has been impaneled, Rigg and Parrish said, the trial’s proceedings should look much like any other case, with arguments, testimony and exhibits. Outside the courtroom will be a different story, though, and judge and jury both need to be careful not to let that pressure interfere with the proceedings.
“(As a judge) you have to pay really careful attention to everything that goes on, but you also have to be cognizant of little things that normally you don’t have to worry about,” Rigg said. “For instance, you have to remind jurors constantly that they cannot utilize any kind of computers, electronic research — any of that kind of stuff.”
More: Key players in the trial of Cristhian Bahena Rivera, the man accused of killing Mollie TibbettsThere are several ways a judge can instruct a jury to avoid impermissible outside influence. Parrish said he thinks it’s unlikely the jury will be sequestered for the entire case, isolated in a hotel or elsewhere to prevent outside interference. Short of that, a judge could admonish the jury to avoid any news coverage of the case or to simply avoid any news, period.
Parrish pointed to the recent trial of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, convicted of murdering George Floyd, to illustrate the possible pitfalls. In that case, the judge told the jury only to avoid coverage of that specific case, and when protests broke out over a new police killing in nearby Brooklyn Center, the defense asked the court to declare a mistrial.
“Once you got past jury selection, that trial smoothed out quite a bit and didn’t flare up again until some politicians started coming in right at the end of the case, making comments that they thought the jurors would hear,” Parrish said. “The fact (the judge) didn’t give that original admonition to keep the jurors from watching all news (created a problem).”
One of the highest-profile court case Iowa has ever seen
The case has drawn intense interest because of the long, highly publicized search for Tibbetts; Bahena Rivera’s status as an undocumented immigrant, which led to Trump’s comments; and the attempt by defense attorneys to suppress most of the state’s evidence in the case, arguing that Bahena Rivera’s rights had been violated by investigators who questioned him all night without an attorney present.
Still, Rigg doesn’t think it’s the biggest case the state’s ever seen.
That claim, he said, belongs with the trial of Anthony Erthel Williams, a mentally ill man charged with kidnapping and killing a 10-year-old girl in Des Moines in 1968. That case went to the U.S. Supreme Court twice in 1977 and 1984 and eventually resulted in two trials convicting Williams of first-degree murder.
“I think probably the Williams case had a larger impact, in part because it was a Supreme Court reversal,” said Rigg, who was a law clerk at the time for one of the judges involved in the case. “This one, certainly, boy, you talk about generating interest, there’s a lot of interest here.”
Another case that drew heavy media attention was the 1993 trial of Teri Lass, a Norwalk woman accused of killing her newborn son. Parrish, who represented her, remembers going on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” with his client after Lass was acquitted.
In a more recent example, Jason Carter of Knoxville was acquitted in 2019 of killing his mother, Shirley Carter, but found liable in a civil case and ordered to pay his father and brother $10 million for her death. The case was featured repeatedly on “Dateline NBC” and in other national media, crime podcasts and more.
With so much attention focused on the Bahena Rivera trial, the attorneys said everyone involved will know that the eyes of many in Iowa and beyond will be on them.
“Those factors are really going to cause the defense and the prosecution to up their game,” Rigg said.
Reach reporter William Morris on Twitter at @DMRMorris.