DAVENPORT, Iowa (NewsNation Now) — The trial of the man charged with killing University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts began Monday with jury selection.
Cristhian Bahena Rivera is charged with first-degree murder in the slaying of 20-year-old Tibbetts.
Tibbetts disappeared in July 2018 while out for a run in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa. Prosecutors say Rivera, 26, followed Tibbetts in a vehicle, killed her during a struggle and dumped her body in a cornfield.
Her disappearance triggered a massive search and investigation that featured hundreds of law enforcement officials and volunteers and drew extensive media coverage.
Jury selection began Monday at an events center in Davenport, where lawyers for both sides worked to whittle a 175-person jury pool to 12 jurors and three alternates. The trial is scheduled to last two weeks.
Judge Joel Yates has barred the public from the trial, citing COVID-19 restrictions, but it will be livestreamed by media outlets.
Legal experts say ensuring a fair trial for Rivera, a Mexican national, will be difficult given the extraordinary circumstances of the case.
Rivera’s arrest inflamed anger over illegal immigration. The case also deepened anxieties about random violence against women.
“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.
Detectives say they zeroed in on Rivera 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.
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.
Rivera will participate in the trial through a Spanish-speaking interpreter.
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.
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