Rivera trial: Bahena Rivera denied new trial despite post-trial evidence

Sentencing for Cristhian Bahena Rivera is set for Aug. 30 in Poweshiek County after Judge Joel Yates denied the defense’s motion for a new trial.



Cristhian Bahena Rivera listens to Poweshiek County Attorney Bart Klaver give his opening statement at his trial at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport, Iowa, on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. Rivera is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Mollie Tibbetts. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Rachel Schilke, Summer Editor

Cristhian Bahena Rivera will not receive a new trial, despite post-trial evidence and suppressed information that linked potential other suspects to the murder of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts.

After two individuals came forward with separate but corroborating evidence that someone else killed Tibbetts, the defense filed for a Motion for a New Trial and a Motion in Arrest of Judgment on July 8, and a supplemental Motion for New Trial was filed July 14.

Bahena Rivera was convicted of Tibbetts’ murder on May 28. He testified on May 26 that he did not murder Tibbetts and was instead forced by two masked men to transport her body after they killed her.

On May 26, Keokuk County inmate Arne Maki came forward with information that a cellmate of his – Gavin Jones, 21 – confessed to him that he and Dalton Hansen allegedly killed Tibbetts on behalf of James Lowe, 50.

Lowe had allegedly kept Tibbetts in the basement of a residence in 2018 that operated as a “trap house” for Lowe’s alleged sex trafficking ring.

Jones’ ex-girlfriend, Lyndsey Voss, came forward on May 26, as well, to present corroborating evidence that Jones had allegedly confessed to her in early May 2021 that he killed Tibbetts.

Both state and defense counsels met on July 27 at the Poweshiek County Clerk-Court in Montezuma, Iowa, to hear testimonies from Maki and Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agent Trent Vileta, among others. Vileta had testified previously in the original trial for Bahena Rivera on May 24.

Maki testified on July 27 that Jones told him he allegedly saw a girl in the basement gagged and tied to a chair when they were stealing cars for the trafficker.

Jones, according to Maki, said to Maki that the “defendant” tipped off Lowe and that the media attention surrounding the girl’s disappearance was getting “too big, too fast,” so they had to remove the woman in the basement. Maki said Jones told him the girl was Tibbetts.

“If the police went to the next house over, the police would have caught her,” Maki said.

He added that he thought Jones was fabricating the story until he heard a clip of Bahena Rivera’s testimony, and learned of his clean criminal record and family history.

“Why would someone tell me something so heinous like that,” Maki said.

According to the judge’s written rule on Monday, the defense had to prove four things to receive a new trial:

  • The evidence was discovered after the verdict;
  • The evidence could not have been discovered earlier in the exercise of due diligence;
  • The evidence is material to the issues in the case and not cumulative or impeach; and
  • The evidence would have probably changed the outcome of the trial

The ruling states that the motion filed by the defense did acknowledge that prosecutor Scott Brown relayed Maki’s information to the defense, but they “took the view that the alleged confession was inconsistent with the testimony of the Defendant, which was heard by the jury prior.”

The defense argued that the information regarding statements given to them post-verdict was significantly different from what was revealed post-verdict. The state, however, stated the information they provided was similar in both cases.

The ruling document stated that the court determined while the defense may not have had every detail relating to Maki’s information, “it is clear enough to the Court that defense counsel did have the core information that an individual had confessed to killing Mollie Tibbetts and some details of the alleged murder with which to compare to Defendant’s testimony.”

The document stated that the defense had the burden to provide Voss’ information post-verdict on May 28, and since they did not, they failed to prove that the evidence from Maki and Voss was discovered after the verdict and did not prove that aspect for a new trial.

The court also determined that Jones’ confession would not have changed the results of the trial due to the inconsistencies between Bahena Rivera’s testimony and Maki’s information, the document stated.

“While the Court cannot say for certain what would have happened if the alleged confession of Jones been presented at trial, it is reasonable to conclude that the jury would have decided either Jones or the Defendant was not being truthful,” the document stated.

Yates also denied the defense’s supplemental motion for a new trial based upon a Brady violation, the Brady v. Maryland U.S. Supreme Court case in 1963.

To prove a Brady violation the defense must present three types of evidence:

  • The prosecution suppressed evidence;
  • The evidence was favorable to the defendant; and
  • The evidence was material to the issue of guilt.

The court acknowledged that the state did suppress evidence relating to any investigation of Lowe. However, the state did provide tips and interviews that that “the defense has now filed in part to demonstrate the possibility of sex trafficking being involved,” the ruling document said.

Evidence “favorable to the defendant” means the difference between conviction and acquittal, the document said. Since there is no eyewitness testimony of Tibbetts’ kidnapping, the court ruled that the evidence regarding Lowe and Jones is not favorable to Bahena Rivera and his case.

The court determined that no party except the defense identified the “50-year-old sex trafficker” as Lowe, and any evidence presented to do so would most likely not survive a relevance challenge during trial, the document said.

Sentencing for Bahena Rivera will be on Aug. 30 at 1:30 p.m. at the Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma, Iowa.

The Daily Iowan reached out to the defense for Bahena Rivera for comment, and the story may be updated with a statement from the defense if provided.