DES MOINES, Iowa — The judge overseeing the case of Cristhian Bahena Rivera, convicted in May of murdering University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, has delayed his sentencing after defense lawyers filed new motions claiming the state withheld relevant information about the case.
On July 8, Bahena Rivera's attorneys filed a motion seeking a new trial, saying that two new witnesses had approached police during their client's trial with statements that could corroborate Bahena Rivera's version of Tibbetts' death. Bahena Rivera testified during the trial that he was abducted by two masked men who forced him to assist them in the murder and left him with Tibbetts' body.
On Tuesday, his attorneys filed another motion alleging that prosecutors had failed to disclose another investigation in the summer of 2018, when Tibbetts disappeared, into a man living less than 30 miles from Tibbetts' hometown of Brooklyn who was allegedly operating a sex-trafficking ring. Defense attorneys also wrote that at least 10 children have gone missing in and around Poweshiek County in recent years.
Bahena Rivera's attorneys asked the judge to push their client's sentencing to a later date, saying additional time is needed to prepare for a new trial hearing. Wednesday, Judge Joel Yates granted that motion.
A Thursday hearing will now consider a motion from the defense to compel prosecutors to hand over evidence. Hearings on the motion for a new trial and on Bahena Rivera's sentencing will be set at a later date.
Tibbetts' parents, who would have had the opportunity to speak at Thursday's sentencing hearing, did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
Tibbetts, a 20-year-old studying psychology at the University of Iowa, disappeared while jogging near her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa, in July 2018. Bahena Rivera was convicted on May 28 of first-degree murder after jurors heard evidence that Tibbetts' blood was found in the trunk of his car and that, after a lengthy interrogation, he had led investigators to where her body had been hidden in a cornfield.
The mandatory penalty for first-degree murder in Iowa is life in prison without the chance of parole.
Tuesday's filing by the defense team raises the possibility of a new suspect, not just in Tibbetts' case, but in other disappearances in and around Poweshiek County – including that of 11-year-old Xavior Harrelson, last seen May 27.
According to the new motion, defense attorneys learned Tuesday of a 2019 search warrant seeking access to a New Sharon home where a 50-year-old man was believed to be staying. In that warrant, investigators described interviewing a woman who alleged she had met the man in Brooklyn and been invited to his home, where she was then held against her will and sexually abused for more than four months before escaping.
No criminal charges have been filed against the man in that investigation, and the Mahaska County Sheriff's Office said Wednesday the allegations were never substantiated.
In the state's response to the defense's motions, filed Wednesday afternoon, prosecutors say the new reports contradict Bahena Rivera in several respects.
"The information is wholly different than the testimony of the defendant and would have most certainly caused his testimony to be further questioned," prosecutors write, adding the new evidence would not have made a difference if presented at trial. "It would make no sense for the defense to offer the testimony of the defendant and then offer a different version of events that contradicts his testimony."
Expert: New filings present procedural tangle for Judge Joel Yates
Once defense attorneys file a motion for a new trial, a case cannot proceed to sentencing until the judge resolves it one way or another, said Bob Rigg, professor and head of the Criminal Defense Clinic at the Drake University School of Law.
"The court is probably going to take all these matters under advisement – I’m sure the court is getting an earful today by both sides, and probably we’ll have a pre-motion hearing tomorrow on the issues of, what are the parameters of how we proceed at this point?" Rigg said.
While motions for new trials are common in cases, to have such dramatic new claims emerge at such a late date is less so, Rigg said.
"You’re making an allegation that other individuals actually committed the homicide, there’s an admission by someone on that basis, and there’s some corroborating evidence for verification of that," he said. "I would say that’s rare."
And while prosecutors argue the defense should have paused the trial to investigate if they thought the new evidence might be significant, Rigg says that's not as simple as it might sound.
"You’re putting a judge in a hell of a bad situation, basically asking the jury to stop deliberating, if final arguments have been made and you’ve given final instructions," he said.
Still, although the last-minute delay will likely be frustrating to many, Rigg said it's important that the court system take the time it needs to ensure a just result.
"I think everyone should keep in mind to calm down and let the judge work through this case – he’s got a lot thrown at him quickly, as far as I can tell, and he’ll figure it out," Rigg said. "The system is not set up for immediate gratification; it’s set up to try to get things right."
Contributing: Andrea Sahouri, Des Moines Register.
William Morris covers courts for the Des Moines Register. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, 715-573-8166 or on Twitter at @DMRMorris.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Mollie Tibbetts murder: Cristhian Bahena Rivera sentencing delayed