Mollie Tibbetts slaying suspect Cristhian Bahena Rivera pleads not guilty

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Cristhian Bahena Rivera pleads not guilty in the death of Mollie Tibbetts during his arraignment at the Poweshiek County Courthouse on Wednesday. Brian Powers, bpowers@dmreg.com

MONTEZUMA, Ia. — The man charged with first-degree murder in the death of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts pleaded not guilty Wednesday.

Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, appeared before District Court Judge Joel Yates at the Poweshiek County Courthouse, where his charge was formally read to him.

He said little, listening through headphones as the hearing was translated into Spanish. Speaking through an interpreter, he confirmed his lawyer's statement that he would enter the not guilty plea.

Bahena Rivera also waived his right to have a trial within 90 days. Yates scheduled his trial for April 16, 2019.

The entire proceeding lasted 10 minutes.

Chad Frese, one of Bahena Rivera's lawyers, said his client was nervous ahead of the hearing, "but he's anxious to get this going."

Mollie Tibbetts: Complete coverage of Iowa woman's disappearance, death

Speaking to reporters after the hearing, he would not say whether the defense team would request to move the trial out of Poweshiek County.

"We will analyze that as the evidence comes in and time goes on, but this has got a lot of publicity," he said. "That’s certainly a consideration."

No matter where the trial takes place, they'll need to find somewhere with 12 impartial jurors who can hear the case, he said.

Prosecutors declined to answer questions from reporters following the hearing.

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Bahena Rivera's arrest ended a five-week search for Tibbetts, 20, of Brooklyn, Iowa after he led investigators to her body, which was covered in cornstalks in a field in rural Poweshiek County near the town of Guernsey.

He faces life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted.

Police have said Bahena Rivera told them he pursued Tibbetts in his car while she was jogging that night, before parking, getting out of the car and running behind and alongside her.

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Mollie Tibbetts was abducted while on a run and later killed and placed in a cornfield. Here is the route Mollie ran on July 19. Des Moines Register

When Tibbetts told Bahena Rivera she was going to call police, he "panicked and got mad," according to a criminal complaint.

"He then 'blocked' his 'memory' which is what he does when he gets very upset," the complaint states. "And doesn't remember anything after that until he came to at an intersection."

An autopsy found she died of "multiple sharp force injuries."

Frese declined to discuss the defense strategy he will pursue at trial, but defense attorneys unconnected to the case have said one possibility is that Bahena Rivera's claim of memory loss — if it can be documented — could open the door to the defense of diminished responsibility. That defense would require Bahena Rivera to admit to killing Tibbetts, but argue that due to his mental state he was not able to form the intent to kill her that prosecutors must prove for a first-degree murder charge.

More: Mollie Tibbetts murder suspect says his memory was 'blocked.' Could that aid his defense?