MONTEZUMA — A confession by the suspect in the death of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts is not reliable because he was sleep deprived and susceptible to coercion after hours of questioning, a defense expert testified Thursday.
Brian Leslie, a consultant with expertise in interrogation techniques, said he reviewed video of the 11-hour interrogation of Cristhian Bahena Rivera that took place in August 2018. He noted the suspect denied involvement in Tibbett’s disappearance until near the end, around 4 a.m., after he had been falling in and out of sleep.
Leslie said Rivera, who had worked his shift at a dairy farm and had been awake for 24 hours, was vulnerable to suggestions that police had strong evidence and would help him if he confessed.
“Based on the sleep deprivation aspect and the amount of various techniques that were used, I would in my opinion not take a lot of what was said as credible,” Leslie said.
Leslie testified at the end of a two-day hearing on Rivera’s motion to suppress his confession, which his lawyers argue was the product of an improper interrogation. Judge Joel Yates said he would take the matter under advisement and rule “as quickly as I can.”
Rivera, 25, is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Tibbetts, who disappeared while out running in Brooklyn, Iowa, in July 2018. Rivera, a Mexican national who was living illegally in the United States, is scheduled to stand trial in February and faces life in prison if convicted.
His lawyers declined to call Rivera to testify after Yates ruled he should be cross-examined about his claim he didn’t understand certain legal rights and was scared to invoke others.
At the end of the interrogation, Rivera told police he followed Tibbetts while she was running. Rivera didn’t describe how she was killed, claiming he “blacked out,” but he said he put her bloody body in his trunk.
An autopsy found Tibbetts died from sharp force injuries. No murder weapon has been found.
Prosecutor Scott Brown blasted Leslie, the defense expert, for failing to consider evidence that corroborated Rivera’s confession.
Brown noted Rivera was able to lead officers after the interrogation several miles to the cornfield where her body was found. He noted DNA testing proved blood found in the trunk of Rivera’s car came from Tibbetts.
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Leslie said it was unusual that a deputy who drove with Rivera to the cornfield didn’t turn on the camera in his car.
Multiple officers testified Rivera asked that he be taken to his home so he could orient himself before he directed them down several roads to the field where the body was found underneath leaves.
Police questioned Rivera after tying him to a car that was seen on surveillance video circling Tibbetts while she ran. They took him in for questioning on Aug. 20, 2018.
Police argue Rivera voluntarily agreed to be interviewed. After six hours, they put an immigration detainer on him after the discovery of blood in his car. An officer gave him an incomplete Miranda warning before questioning resumed for hours.
Prosecutors concede that some of his statements are likely inadmissible due to the botched warning. But they argued evidence related to the body should be admissible, claiming it would have been found eventually.
Defense lawyers argued the entire 11-hour interrogation was tainted.
The police officer who obtained the confession testified Wednesday that she made an honest mistake when she failed to read him his complete legal rights.
Officer Pamela Romero said she tried to read Cristhian Bahena Rivera a Miranda warning during the Aug. 20, 2018, interrogation but didn’t realize until later that she left one part out, failing to tell him that his statements could be used against him in court. Romero said her failure was a mistake and not an attempt to keep him talking without a lawyer.
After several more hours of questioning, Rivera led officers to the body. After the discovery of the body, Romero said, she read Rivera his rights again and this time they were complete. She said he provided “substantial information” about how Tibbetts was killed and left in the field at that point.
Two of Rivera’s relatives testified Thursday they were denied access to him when he was being questioned. His aunt, Alejandra Cervantes Valle, said an officer at the sheriff’s office advised her he wouldn’t need an attorney.