(NEW YORK) — A judge has delayed the sentencing of a man convicted of murdering University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts after defense attorneys filed court documents accusing prosecutors of failing to disclose that police were investigating a sex trafficking “trap house” involving a man linked to a missing 11-year-old boy.
Instead of sentencing Cristhian Bahena Rivera, who was expected to receive life in prison without the possibility of parole, Judge Joel Yates will hold a hearing on Thursday on a defense motion to set aside the verdict and schedule a new trial.
A jury convicted Bahena Rivera, a 27-year-old Mexican national farmworker, in May of first-degree murder in the 2018 abduction and killing of the 20-year-old student.
On Tuesday, Bahena Rivera’s attorneys filed a motion, alleging prosecutors failed to disclose a separate investigation was occurring at the time of Tibbetts’ disappearance involving a man allegedly operating a sex trafficking “trap house” in New Sharon, Iowa, 27 miles from Brooklyn, Iowa, where Tibbetts went missing on July 18, 2018.
The 50-year-old man the defense attorneys identified by name in their motion was once the live-in boyfriend of the mother of 11-year-old Xavior Harrelson, who vanished from a rural Iowa trailer park on May 27, a day before the jury found Bahena Rivera guilty.
The motion also claimed that an investigation by the defense found that, in the past few years, at least 10 children have been reported missing in or near Poweshiek County, Iowa, the same county where Tibbetts was stabbed to death and dumped in a cornfield.
The defense attorneys filed court papers last week asking for a new trial based on information from two witnesses who came forward to law enforcement in May saying they independently spoke to a man who claimed he and a 50-year-old sex trafficker killed Tibbetts and framed Bahena Rivera.
One of the new witnesses purportedly claimed the real killer — who was in jail with the witness at the time — told him that he first saw Tibbetts bound and gagged at a sex trafficking “trap house” owned by his alleged accomplice. The man claimed, according to the defense motion, his alleged accomplice grew worried after federal authorities searching for Tibbetts showed up at a house next door to his.
“That Mexican shouldn’t be in jail for killing Mollie Tibbett, because I raped her and killed her,” the witness claimed the confessed killer told him, according to the earlier defense motion.
In their motion filed Tuesday, defense attorneys attached a police search warrant affidavit for the New Sharon home that they say “corroborates the ‘trap house’ account.”
A second individual contacted the Mahaska County, Iowa, Sheriff’s Office with a similar story involving the same man who reportedly confessed, but deputies said the witness appeared to be under the influence at the time and dismissed the story as not being credible.
Both witnesses contacted investigators within hours of each other on May 26, the same day Bahena Rivera testified at his trial that he was kidnapped by two masked men who forced him to drive them to where Tibbetts was expected to be jogging. He claimed that when they found Tibbetts, one of the men stabbed her to death, put her body in the trunk of Bahena Rivera’s car and made him drive to a cornfield, where the young woman’s badly decomposed remains were discovered a month after she went missing.
Bahena Rivera admitted on the witness stand that he placed Tibbetts’ body in the cornfield but was not involved in her murder. Bahena Rivera claimed during his testimony that he didn’t tell investigators about the masked men because they threatened to harm his former girlfriend, the mother of his daughter, if he did.
In his closing argument, prosecutor Scott Brown called Bahena Rivera’s testimony a “figment of his imagination.” A jury deliberated seven hours over two days before finding Bahena Rivera guilty.
Following the verdict, prosecutors informed the defense attorneys that the two witnesses had come forward.
The defense motion filed Tuesday argued that Bahena Rivera’s “claim based on newly discovered evidence has turned into a due process violation arising from the prosecution’s failure to turn over reports involving trap houses and kidnappings in or near the Poweshiek County area.”
Prosecutors from the Iowa State Attorney General’s Office have yet to comment on the new developments but are expected to file a response to the defense motion for a new trial on Wednesday.
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