MONTEZUMA, Iowa — Cristhian Bahena Rivera’s defense returns to the Poweshiek County courthouse on Tuesday to present evidence and testimony to support their claim that newly discovered evidence implicates other suspects in the 2018 murder of college student Mollie Tibbetts.
Bahena Rivera was supposed to be sentenced on July 15 to life without the possibility of parole after a Scott County jury convicted him in May of first-degree murder for Tibbetts’ death. The trial took place in Davenport, about two hours east of Poweshiek County, where Bahena Rivera led investigators to Tibbetts’ body in a cornfield in August 2018.
The sentencing was preempted by a flurry of defense post-verdict motions – chiefly, a new trial motion based largely on allegations of alternate suspects the defense says were involved in a sex-trafficking ring.
In total, the defense is citing three points for the warranting of a new trial:
- Important and material evidence was discovered post-verdict in the defendant’s favor
- Court denied the defense’s request for uniform jury instruction on reasonable doubt
- The guilty verdict was contrary to the weight of evidence
On Tuesday, Judge Joel Yates will hear evidence and arguments for and against the new trial motion and another motion for arrest of judgment.
Court filings cite accounts from two people who allegedly came forward hours apart on May 26 and told law enforcement that a mutual acquaintance named Gavin Jones admitted to killing Tibbetts:
- Arne Maki: An inmate, currently housed in Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility, who met Jones in Keokuk County jail in November 2020. Maki allegedly said Jones told him he saw Tibbetts “bound and gagged” in a “trap house” owned by a 50-year-old man allegedly involved in sex-trafficking. Maki said Jones told him that the 50-year-old man, identified in court documents as James Lowe, later directed Jones and Jones’ friend, Dalton Hansen, to kill Tibbetts.
- Lyndsey Voss: Jones’ ex-girlfriend who said she was in a car with Jones when he pulled a pistol on her and exclaimed “that Mexican shouldn’t be in jail for killing Mollie Tibbetts because I raped her and killed her.”
When contacted by the Associated Press, Jones and Hansen denied involvement in Tibbetts’ murder.
According to the defense filings, Maki and Voss do not know each other and came forward separately on May 26, after hearing Bahena Rivera testify at trial.
Bahena Rivera took the stand in his defense and said two men forced him at gunpoint to drive them around Brooklyn, Iowa, the night of July 18, 2018. When they came upon Tibbetts, he said one of the men abducted her and loaded her into his trunk. Then, according to Bahena Rivera’s account, the men directed him to the cornfield where Bahena Rivera said he hid Tibbetts’ body under a pile of cornstalks after the men fled on foot. Bahena Rivera’s testimony clashed with the account he gave investigators in 2018 after they tracked him down using surveillance video showing his car near Tibbetts’ jogging route.
He told investigators he approached Tibbetts, then blacked out after she threatened to call police, then dumped her body in the cornfield.
It was the prosecution team who notified the defense of the accounts – first, during the trial, after the defense had rested its case; then, after the verdict, prosecutors provided the defense with reports summarizing the two accounts. However, the timing of the disclosures is disputed. The defense says they only learned about Voss’s account after the verdict, making it a Brady violation. Prosecutors say they told the defense about Make and Voss simultaneously, making it untimely.
Nevertheless, the disclosure of both accounts led the defense to file another motion asking the state to hand over evidence of:
- Any sex trafficking investigation involving James Lowe or any other residents of Poweshiek County or adjoining counties
- Any pending investigations of James Lowe during the period that Mollie Tibbett’s went missing and present
- Any pending investigations involving Gavin Jones
The motion also alleged Lowe is connected to missing boy Xavier Harrelson of Montezuma through Xavior’s mother. Instead of a sentencing hearing, Yates heard the defense’s motion to compel on July 15. Yates ultimately denied the request as overly broad and lacking an obvious connection to Bahena Rivera’s case.
Iowa Rule of Criminal Procedure 2.24(2)(b)(8) authorizes the Court to grant a new trial “[w]hen the defendant has discovered important and material evidence in the defendant’s favor since the verdict, which the defendant could not with reasonable diligence have discovered and produced at the trial.” A motion for a new trial on the basis of newly discovered evidence should be granted only where the evidence “(1) was discovered after the verdict, (2) could not have been discovered earlier in due diligence, (3) is material to the issues in the case and not merely cumulative, and (4) probably would have changed the result of the trial.” Smith, 573 N.W.2d at 21 (quoting State v. Jefferson, 545 N.W.2d 248, 249 (Iowa 1996)).
Prosecutors objected to the new trial motion, partly based on the timing of the defense’s motion. They argue the newly discovered evidence came up before jury deliberations, but the defense said the information “was not worth pursuing” – a characterization the defense disputes. Prosecutors further argue the information is merely another unsubstantiated theory that would not have changed verdict.
- Morning session – Bahena Rivera testifies in his defense
- 1:15 p.m. – Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility staff interviews inmate Arne Maki after he volunteers about Tibbetts
- 1:30 – Bahena Rivera defense rests; counsel meets in chambers and discusses new information
- 3:20 – Lyndsey Voss contacts the Poweshiek County Sheriff’s Office, claiming she has information about Tibbetts
- 5:30 p.m. – Lyndsey Voss is interviewed at the Poweshiek County Sheriff’s Office
- Prosecutors turn over two reports summarizing Voss and Maki accounts; defense says this is the first time they learned about Voss account, prosecutors say they disclosed Voss account at the same time as Maki account, before the verdict
- Defense files motion for a new trial
- Defense files motion to continue hearing and sentencing
- Defense files motion to compel Brady evidence, asking prosecutors to hand over investigative files related to missing persons and
- Defense files supplemental motion naming alleged alternate suspects
- State files resistance to new trial motion
- Court holds hearing on motion to compel Brady evidence
- Judge denies motion to compel Brady evidence