Update: On March 27, the Poweshiek County District Court granted Cristhian Bahena Rivera’s request for a change of venue. His trial for the murder of Mollie Tibbetts has been moved to Woodbury County. Bahena Rivera’s attorneys had asked the case be moved to a community “where a minority population is substantially represented.” Latinos make up more than 16 percent of Woodbury’s population, according to an estimate by the State Data Center of Iowa.
Attorneys for the man accused of murdering University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts filed a change of venue motion with the Poweshiek County Court handling the case on Friday. Emotions regarding the murder of the 20-year-old Tibbetts “do not appear to have cooled,” making it impossible for Cristhian Bahena Rivera to receive a fair trial in the county, according to the motion.
The pretrial publicity surrounding this case has been extensive and pervasive. News crews from local and national news outlets descended upon the area interviewing family members and numerous community members. Stories, of all types, were aired on television, internet and radio concerning Ms. Tibbetts’ disappearance and how it impacted the Poweshiek county community.
Tibbetts disappeared while jogging near her home in the Poweshiek County town of Brooklyn on July 18. Bahena Rivera was arrested on Aug. 21, and charged with first-degree murder. That same day, Rivera led authorities to Tibbetts’ body, which he had hidden in a cornfield.
According to the Iowa Department of Public Safety, Rivera confessed to following Tibbetts and having a confrontation with her, during which she threatened to call the police, but he claims not to remember committing the murder.
Bahena Rivera’s attorneys said potential witnesses, many of whom are Latino, are fearful about testifying.
“These individuals fear reprisals from locals who hold strong opinions concerning Latinos following [Bahena Rivera] being charged,” according to the motion.
There were threats against Latino communities in the state after Bahena Rivera’s arrest. The Tibbetts family has strongly pushed back against attempts to blame Latinos or immigrants for the actions of Bahena Rivera, as well as the attempts of politicians to exploit the murder for their agendas.
Bahena Rivera’s attorneys have requested the trial be transferred to a county “where a minority population is substantially represented.”
Iowa’s population is 90.9 percent white, according the most recent population estimates. Although the State Data Center estimates that Iowa’s Latino population has increased by 130.2 percent between 2010 and 2017, the overall number remains relatively small. The state’s approximately 190,000 Latinos accounted for 6 percent of the overall population in 2017.
Only 10 of Iowa’s 99 counties have a Latino population of 10 percent or greater. Latinos only make up 3.4 percent of the Poweshiek County population, according to the State Data Center.
Bahena Rivera’s trial is currently scheduled to begin at the Poweshiek County courthouse on Sept. 3.