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Mollie Tibbetts' Convicted Killer Won't Get New Trial, Judge Rules

Christhian Bahena Rivera's attorneys argued that new witnesses pointed to a different suspect in the murder of Mollie Tibbetts, but a judge said that the conflicting nature of the account with Bahena Rivera's own testimony at trial would have been unlikely to change the verdict.

By Jill Sederstrom
Judge Delays Sentencing In Mollie Tibbetts Murder Case

The man convicted of killing Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts won’t get a new trial, despite claims by his defense team that new evidence suggested alternate suspects.  

Poweshiek County District Court Judge Joel Yates denied the defense team’s bid for a new trial on Monday, writing in a ruling obtained by Oxygen.com that it was “doubtful” adding another possible suspect would have changed the outcome of Cristhian Bahena Rivera’s trial.

“We’re pleased the judge upheld the jury’s verdict and we’re looking forward to the sentencing,” Lynn Hicks, chief of staff for the Iowa Attorney General told Oxygen.com of the decision.

Bahena Rivera was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder on May 28 for killing Tibbetts—whose body was found abandoned in an Iowa cornfield in 2018 approximately one month after she disappeared—but before his scheduled sentencing date his attorneys filed a motion to issue a new trial in the case after two witnesses came forward suggesting the same alternate suspect.

Just two days before the jury delivered their verdict, Arne Maki, an inmate at an Iowa correctional facility came forward to claim that fellow inmate Gavin Jones had allegedly confessed to killing Tibbetts in a “trap house” associated with sex trafficking, according to the ruling.

A second witness, Lyndsey Voss, also made a report the same day saying Jones had also confessed the killing to her as well.

Yet, Yates ruled that specific details provided in the alleged confession were “vastly different” from the story that Bahena Rivera had told himself in the courtroom.

“At the hearing, Maki recalls that Jones said he stabbed Mollie Tibbetts in the basement of the ‘trap house’ and then wrapped her body in a tarp before pinning the murder on the Defendant. However, at trial, the Defendant testified that two individuals came to his residence, forced him to drive into Brooklyn and follow Mollie while she was running, and then wait in the car while one of them killed Mollie,” Yates wrote.

Cristhian Bahena Rivera Ap

Bahena Rivera also admitted to hiding the 20-year-old’s body in an Iowa cornfield and later led investigators to that exact location. Her blood was also later discovered in the trunk of his car.

“Had both versions of events been presented at trial, the jury would have had to make a credibility determination not between the State’s witnesses and those of the defense, which is a typical scenario, but between the Defendant and his own witness,” Yates wrote.

Yates concluded that it was unlikely presenting the alternate theory would have changed the trial’s outcome.

Jones denied killing Tibbetts to The Associated Press last month and said he had an alibi for the night she was killed.

Both versions presented by the defense differ significantly from prosecutors' account of the slaying.

During the trial, investigators testified that Bahena Rivera’s black Chevrolet Malibu had been captured on surveillance video in the area where Tibbetts had been spotted jogging the night she disappeared, ABC News reports.

Investigators also said that after he was taken into custody, Bahena Rivera initially said that he had seen Tibbetts jogging and thought she was “hot.” He allegedly told authorities he had gotten out of the car to approach her, but got angry when she rejected his advances and blacked out before finding her body in the trunk of his car.

In his decision Monday, Yates also rejected the defense’s claim that the state had suppressed evidence. Bahena Rivera’s defense team had argued that prosecutors failed to turn over evidence connected to a 2019 sex trafficking investigation they believed could have been connected to Tibbetts’ case.

While Yates agreed prosecutors had not provided the evidence in that particular investigation, he said there has been “no evidence” to suggest the man in that investigation was connected to Tibbetts’ case.

“Providing an alternate suspect is only a useful strategy when it is believable that the alternate suspect could have committed the offense,” Yates wrote.

He also wrote that he didn’t believe information would have altered the jury’s decision.

“It is doubtful that adding another possible suspect, one with no apparent ties besides being in the same county as Mollie, would have a reasonable probability [to] change the result of [the] trial,” he said, according to the ruling.

Yates scheduled a new sentencing hearing for Bahena Rivera for 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 30.