Prosecutor calls request for new trial by Mollie Tibbetts killer a 'fishing expedition'
An Iowa judge is expected to decide as early as Friday if he will grant a request from the attorneys for Cristhian Bahena Rivera the man convicted of murdering University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, to compel law enforcement agencies to allow them to review evidence in a purported sex trafficking investigation and the search for a missing 11-year-old boy.
Attorneys for Bahena Rivera argued on Thursday that they suspect the two cases are linked to a man they say could be Tibbetts’ killer.
“There’s something rotten in this area,” defense attorney Chad Frese said, saying that the sex trafficking investigation and the disappearance of Xavior Harrelson both occurred in the same rural area where Tibbetts, 20, was abducted while out for a jog in 2018 and murdered.
The request to review records in both cases came as part of a motion made by Bahena Rivera and his attorneys for a new trial based on evidence revealed by two independent witnesses who claim the same man told them he and a 50-year-old sex trafficker kidnapped Tibbetts and then killed her when the search for her whereabouts drew national attention.
Poweshiek County, Iowa, Judge Joel Yates said he will decide by the end of this week whether to force law enforcement agencies to allow the defense attorneys to review evidence in investigations that prosecutors say have no link to the Tibbetts case.
“We resist providing anything that they’re asking for. There is no discovery post-trial,” prosecutor Scott Brown, an assistant Iowa state attorney general, told Yates, calling the defense request “a fishing expedition.”
“If they want to go and knock themselves out trying to find out all of this confusing information that has been presented to the court, go right ahead and do that,” Brown said of the defense. “But there is nothing in the rules, nothing in the case law that compels the state to chase its tail because they’re asking us to do it.”
Yates has tentatively scheduled a second hearing for July 27 on the remaining part of the defense motion for a new trial.
Yates had been scheduled to sentence Bahena Rivera on Thursday, but he postponed it to hear the defense argue its motion.
During Thursday’s hearing, Bahena Rivera sat handcuffed at the defense table wearing black-and-white striped prison clothes and listening to the proceeding with the aid of a Spanish interpreter.
A jury convicted Bahena Rivera, a 27-year-old Mexican national farmworker, in May of first-degree murder. Bahena Rivera, 27, is facing a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The defense attorneys requested a new trial after Brown informed them before the verdict was announced that an inmate at a local jail came forward to authorities claiming his cellmate told him he and a 50-year-old alleged sex trafficker killed Tibbetts and framed a Hispanic man.
Bahena Rivera’s attorneys filed a motion Tuesday alleging prosecutors failed to disclose a separate investigation was occurring at the time of Tibbetts’ disappearance involving a man, who is now in prison on a gun charge, allegedly operating a sex trafficking “trap house” in New Sharon, Iowa, which is 27 miles from where Tibbetts went missing on July 18, 2018. The man, according to the defense attorneys, had once been the live-in boyfriend of the mother of Xavior Harrelson, who has been missing since May 27.
The defense attorneys also presented Yates with a search warrant executed in 2019 on the suspected sex-traffickers house that they say corroborates what the witness claims his cellmate told him. The witness purportedly claimed his cellmate, who defense attorneys named in their motion and in their arguments in court, told him he saw Tibbetts bound and gagged at the trap house and that he participated in her murder.
A second witness contacted authorities within hours of the first witness claiming the same man told her a similar story, defense attorneys said.
“That evidence is exculpatory and it has not been produced,” defense attorney Jennifer Frese, who is married to Chad Frese, said of the investigations into the sex trafficking trap house and the disappearance of the missing boy.
Brown said he disclosed the information to the defense about the jailed witness coming forward as soon as he learned about it, which he claimed was on the day the defense rested its case. He said he offered to request a halt to the trial while the new evidence was being checked out but Chad Frese declined the offer because, according to Brown, the information was “it was inconsistent to what the defendant said.”
During the trial, Bahena Rivera took the witness stand and testified that he was kidnapped by two masked men who forced him to drive them to where Tibbetts was expected to be jogging. He claimed that when they found Tibbetts, one of the men stabbed her to death, put her body in the trunk of Bahena Rivera’s car and made him drive to a cornfield, where the young woman’s badly decomposed remains were discovered a month after she went missing.
Bahena Rivera admitted on the witness stand that he placed Tibbetts’ body in the cornfield but said he was not involved in her murder. In addition, Bahena Rivera claimed during his testimony that he didn’t tell investigators about the masked men because they threatened to harm his former girlfriend, the mother of his daughter, if he did.
“There is no connection between anything with Xavior Harrelson and Mollie Tibbetts’ disappearance,” Brown said. “Wow is all I can say with regard to their (the defense’s) request to go down that road.”
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