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Nearly three years after the body of Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts was found hidden in a corn field, the man accused of killing the 20-year-old is going on trial.
Jury selection in the highly anticipated murder trial of Cristhian Bahena Rivera began Monday in Davenport as the prosecution and defense teams try to whittle the 183-person jury pool down to 12 jurors and 3 alternates in a case that has garnered national attention and even sparked outrage from former President Donald Trump, according to The Associated Press.
As the jury selection process began, Assistant Iowa Attorney General Scott Brown warned potential jurors that they would be exposed to graphic and unsettling details of the case.
“We’re going to talk about the violent death of a young girl, Mollie Tibbetts,” Brown said according to The Associated Press. “It’s not going to be pleasant.”
The high-profile case was moved to Scott County—about 100 miles away from the small Brooklyn, Iowa community where Tibbetts disappeared during a jog on July 18, 2018—in part because of the intense local media attention surrounding the case.
The defense team made the initial request to move the trial from Poweshiek County shortly after Rivera’s arrest and prosecutors never objected, according to The Des Moines Register.
“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 2019 court filing obtained by the local paper.
Legal experts have said ensuring a fair trial for Rivera, a suspected illegal immigrant who had been working as a farm laborer when authorities say he attacked Tibbetts, could still be a challenge after the case became a lightening rod for those who opposed to a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The case earned the attention of then-President Donald Trump, who called Rivera a “predator,” and was the focus of robo-calls linked to a white supremacist group calling for mass deportations.
"You heard about today with the illegal alien coming in, very sadly, from Mexico and you saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful young woman," Trump said at a rally in Charleston, West Virginia shortly after Rivera’s arrest according to Fox News. "Should’ve never happened. Illegally in our country. We’ve had a huge impact, but the laws are so bad. The immigration laws are such a disgrace, we’re getting them changed, but we have to get more Republicans. We have to get ’em."
Tibbetts’ family eventually demanded that politicians stop using their daughter’s name for what they deemed to be racist agenda.
Most of the jurors in the pool of 183 Iowa residents appeared to be white and spoke fluent English, according to The Des Moines Register. One potential juror said through the help of an interpreter that he sympathized with Rivera because “if it’s supposed to be a jury of his peers, it doesn’t really look that way.”
Rivera looked on wearing headphones that helped him interpret the proceedings.
Jury selection is expected to last two days before opening statements begin on Wednesday. The legal teams are hoping to compile a pool of 37 potential jurors who could serve in the case. That pool would then become the 12 jurors and 3 alternates needed to try the case.
As the day drew to a close on Monday, 24 people had been selected for the potential pool of jurors, the local paper reports.
Tibbetts disappeared July 18, 2018 after she was last seen jogging in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa. Her boyfriend said he received his final SnapChat message from her around 10 p.m., KCCI reports.
Her family reported her missing the next day after she failed to show up for her job at a childcare center—sparking a massive manhunt for the 20-year-old.
About a month later, investigators questioned Rivera after surveillance footage surfaced that appeared to show his car driving near Tibbetts as she jogged.
He allegedly told investigators that he had approached her and began to chase her after she had threatened to call police. He allegedly claimed he had blacked out and didn’t remember killing her, but later realized her body was in the back of his car, local station WOI reports.
Authorities said he helped lead them to her body on August 21, 2018.
Defense attorneys have previously argued that Rivera was not properly read his Miranda rights.
An autopsy would later determine Tibbetts had died of sharp force injuries due to stabbing.
The trial is expected to last about two weeks.
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