Mollie Tibbetts murder trial: Jury finds Cristhian Bahena Rivera guilty

Cristhian Bahena Rivera was found guilty of first-degree murder

Jurors in the trial of an illegal immigrant charged with the brutal 2018 murder of Mollie Tibbetts found Cristhian Bahena Rivera guilty of first-degree murder on Friday in a case that drew national attention because of the suspect's immigration status. 

The verdict was announced Friday afternoon after a two-week trial in Davenport, Iowa, in which Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 26, faced the first-degree murder charge for which he was convicted.

After the verdict, prosecutor Scott Brown said the Tibbetts family was "relieved" and pleased with the decision. 

Jurors reached their decision after deliberating for just over seven hours. Excluding the alternates, the jurors ranged in age from 19 to 71. The panel was made up of five females and seven males, of which three were of Hispanic descent and nine were White.

Juror Robert Reed told Fox News the panel was confident in its decision, noting that the charged nature of the case didn't play a role in the outcome. 

"I think especially for a lot of us, it was very emotional," he said. "What we really had to do is put all of our emotions to the side. And that's not what it was about."

Bahena Rivera, who came to the U.S. illegally from Mexico as a teenager, will be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, which is a mandatory sentence upon conviction. He will be held without bond pending a July 15 sentencing hearing.

Defense attorneys Chad and Jennifer Frese said they plan to appeal the jury's decision on their client's behalf. 

Chad Frese said he and the defense team were "disappointed" by the verdict. 

"Anytime you have a client who gives a statement like he did, and the fact that there was DNA evidence in the trunk and the fact that he led them to the body, it makes it extraordinarily difficult," he told reporters after the decision was announced.  

Frese said the decision to have Bahena Rivera testify "wasn't as difficult as a lot of people want to make it sound." He said the testimony his client provided during the trial "was exactly the version of events he told us going back to August 2018."

"He had never varied from that version of events, not one, not one detail," Frese said. "We thought the jury needed to hear directly from him."

During closing arguments, prosecutors urged the jury to convict Bahena Rivera, 26, for the death of the University of Iowa student, citing "overwhelming evidence" that tied him to the killing.

The defense rested its case Wednesday after Bahena Rivera testified that two men killed Tibbetts and forced him to transport her body in his car and threatened to harm his family. 

Brown called Bahena Rivera's testimony "a figment of his imagination." He argued that Bahena Rivera drove past Tibbetts, 20, as she was running on July 18, 2018 in Brooklyn, Iowa and made advances towards her. 

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When she rebuffed him, he got angry, Brown said. He then killed her and hid her body in a cornfield, he said. 

"He's coming up with something totally new," Brown said of the Bahena Rivera's testimony after the verdict. 

Cristhian Bahena Rivera listens to court proceedings in his trial on Monday in the Scott County Courthouse, in Davenport, Iowa. Defense lawyers argued that Bahena Rivera is a hard-working, family-centered immigrant from Mexico who was pressured into making a false confession in connection with the death of Mollie Tibbetts in July 2018. (Kelsey Kremer/The Des Moines Register via AP, Pool)

Cristhian Bahena Rivera listens to court proceedings in his trial on Monday in the Scott County Courthouse, in Davenport, Iowa. Defense lawyers argued that Bahena Rivera is a hard-working, family-centered immigrant from Mexico who was pressured into making a false confession in connection with the death of Mollie Tibbetts in July 2018. (Kelsey Kremer/The Des Moines Register via AP, Pool)

Defense lawyer Chad Frese said his client gave authorities a false confession that was coerced. He noted that investigators never found a murder weapon or produced witnesses showing where Tibbetts was killed. 

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The defense painted Bahena Rivera as a hard-working immigrant from Mexico who crossed the border illegally as a teenager in search of a better life and who was pressured into confessing to the slaying. 

Frese said Bahena Rivera had no history of violence and worked to avoid police, given that he was living in the country illegally. He said it made no sense that his client would be "brazen enough to pick up a woman, abduct her and maybe kill her in a span of 10 to 20 minutes."

"Folks this was planned, not by him but by someone else," Frese said.

In this September 2016 photo provided by Kim Calderwood, Mollie Tibbetts poses for a picture during homecoming festivities at BGM High School in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa. (Kim Calderwood via AP)

In this September 2016 photo provided by Kim Calderwood, Mollie Tibbetts poses for a picture during homecoming festivities at BGM High School in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa. (Kim Calderwood via AP)

On Thursday, prosecutors called a rebuttal witness to establish an alibi for Tibbetts' boyfriend, Dalton Jack, who the defense suggested was involved in the murder. 

Frese, the defense lawyer, said investigators did not look thoroughly into Jack. He noted Jack sent Tibbetts a text message within minutes of when she disappeared saying that his cellular "data straight up won't work."

"That’s a suspicious text if I have ever seen one, folks," he said. "It sounds like someone trying to cover his tracks."

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Jack's former supervisor, Nick Wilson, testified that Jack was working on a bridge in Dubuque about an hour before the killing. After work, Jack then grilled and drank beer with other co-works at a hotel that evening. Dubuque is more than a two-hour drive from Brooklyn. 

Fox News' Melissa Chrise contributed to this report, as well as The Associated Press.