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Potential jurors warned of graphic evidence in Bahena Rivera murder trial

Cristhian Bahena Rivera is lead into the courtroom for his initial court appearance, Wednesday,...
Cristhian Bahena Rivera is lead into the courtroom for his initial court appearance, Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018, at the Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma, Iowa. Rivera is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Mollie Tibbetts, who disappeared July 18 from Brooklyn, Iowa. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette via AP, Pool)(AP)
Updated: May. 17, 2021 at 2:23 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCCI/KCRG) - Prosecutors warned prospective jurors Monday that the trial of a man charged in the 2018 fatal stabbing of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts will include graphic evidence that will be emotionally difficult to see and hear.

Cristhian Bahena Rivera faces a first-degree murder charge in Tibbetts death, a case that gained national headlines after the 20-year-old disappeared while jogging in Brooklyn, Iowa, back in July 2018. Her body was found in rural Poweshiek County nearly a month later.

Prosecutor Scott Brown said the trial will feature testimony about the stab wounds Tibbetts suffered after going for a run. “We’re going to talk about the violent death of a young girl, Mollie Tibbetts,” he said. “It’s not going to be pleasant.”

Brown spoke during jury selection at an events center in Davenport, where lawyers began working to whittle down a 175-person pool to 12 jurors and three alternates. Jury selection is expected to continue Tuesday before a two-week trial at the Scott County Courthouse. The trial was moved to Scott County due to pretrial publicity.

Legal experts say ensuring a fair trial for Rivera, a farm laborer who is suspected of entering the country illegally as a teenager, will be difficult given the extraordinary circumstances of the case.

Rivera’s arrest inflamed anger over illegal immigration, with then-President Donald Trump calling Rivera a killer who exploited lax immigration laws and Iowa’s governor calling him a predator. The case deepened anxieties about random violence against women, since Tibbetts was attacked while out for exercise in her small town of Brooklyn, Iowa.

Rivera, 26, has been jailed since his arrest in August 2018. He wore a dress shirt and navy slacks Monday and listened through headphones as an interpreter translated the proceedings into Spanish.

“This case has a double-edged problem with picking fair and impartial jurors. They can be overcome, but they are problems,” said Drake University law professor Mark Bennett, a former federal judge who doesn’t have a link to the case.

Tibbetts, who was working toward her dream of becoming a child psychologist, is an extremely likeable victim who will draw sympathy from jurors, Bennett said. In addition, some will question Rivera’s immigration status because of the interpreter, even if the judge doesn’t allow any mention of it, he said.

Underscoring the challenge, 10 of the first 12 potential jurors questioned Monday said they had heard about the case, and five said they had formed opinions about it.

Jury selection is expected to continue Tuesday before a two-week trial.

You can watch live coverage of the Cristian Behena Rivera on KCRG 9.2 and KCRG.com, with team coverage throughout the day on KCRG-TV9 and the KCRG Mobile App.

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