Iowa Court of Appeals denies new trial for Cristhian Bahena Rivera

by Rox Laird | October 12, 2023

A convicted murderer’s bid for a new trial was denied by the Iowa Court of Appeal in a decision handed down Oct. 11.

Cristhian Bahena Rivera was convicted by a Poweshiek County jury in 2021 for the murder of Mollie Tibbetts of Brooklyn, Iowa, in 2018. Tibbetts, a University of Iowa student home for the summer, was reported missing July 19 when she did not show up for work. Her remains were not discovered until a month later when Bahena led law enforcement authorities to a corn field where he admitted to having placed her body.

Following the jury’s verdict, Bahena moved for a new trial, citing the existence of newly discovered evidence and arguing that the State failed to disclose additional evidence regarding a 2019 investigation into a sex-trafficking ring. The district court denied Bahena’s motion for a new trial. Bahena appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, which transferred the case to the Iowa Court of Appeals.

In addition to challenging the trial court’s denial of his motion for a new trial, Bahena argues that statements he made to law enforcement officers before he was given Miranda warnings should have been suppressed; that a second set of Miranda warnings made after the discovery of Tibbetts’ body were inadequate; and that statements he made following the second Miranda warnings were made involuntarily in violation of his due process rights.

The Court of Appeals rejected Bahena’s appeal in a decision written by Court of Appeals Judge Julie Schumacher and joined by Chief Judge Thomas Bower and Judge Mary Tabor.

On Bahena’s challenge of the district court’s denial of his motion for a new trial based on new evidence, the Court of Appeals held that Bahena either failed to establish that the new evidence was not available at trial or that it would have changed the outcome of the trial.

As for the question of the admissibility of Bahena’s statements to law enforcement officers prior to the placement of an immigration detainer – the point at which he was in official custody and Miranda warnings were required – the court said he was not physically restrained and was repeatedly told he could leave. Miranda warnings were not yet required and his statements were admissible, the court said.

The Court of Appeals also disagreed that statements Bahena made following the discovery of Tibbetts’ remains were not made knowingly and voluntarily.

“We acknowledge other factors prior to the second set of warnings could weigh towards a finding of involuntariness,” Judge Schumacher wrote. “Officers utilized some deceptive practices during the interrogation leading up to Bahena’s inculpatory statements at the scene of the body, including suggesting they had DNA, tire prints, witnesses, and cell phone data implicating Bahena.”

Also, Bahena was detained and interrogated for more than six hours prior to making the challenged statements — from 11:30 p.m. until around 5 a.m., and he had been awake since about 5 a.m. the previous day.

But none of those factors rise to the level required to render Bahena’s statements as involuntary, the court said.

“We determine the State proved by a preponderance of the evidence that Bahena voluntarily waived his Miranda rights and the resulting statements were voluntary for due process purposes,” Judge Schumacher wrote.






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On Brief: Iowa’s Appellate Blog is devoted to appellate litigation with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.


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