MONTEZUMA, Iowa (CBS2/FOX28) — Lawyers for the man accused of murdering Mollie Tibbetts are asking the court to delay the trial. The case is generating national, even international attention. With all that pre-trial publicity, how is it possible to secure a fair trial?
The Mollie Tibbets murder trial will involve ethnicity, gender, even immigration status. It’s set to take place in rural Poweshiek County, where only about 18,000 people live there. Almost anyone who would be in the jury pool would've heard a lot about this case. That presents a major hurdle the for defense and prosecution.
Cristhian Bahena Rivera is charged with murdering Mollie Tibbetts, and a first-degree murder conviction carries a mandatory life sentence in prison without parole.
Tibbetts was found dead in a corn field in August, weeks after her disappearance that caught national attention. Police say Bahena Rivera confessed to kidnapping Tibbetts last July just outside her hometown of Brooklyn while she was out for a run. The murder generated news coverage from around the world.
With all that attention how can defense or prosecution seat an unbiased jury?
David Medin sat in the jury pool for another high-profile murder case, the trial of Gregory Davis. Last year, a jury convicted him of killing his ex-girlfriend Carrie Davis inside their home in Marion.
“Our decisions really matter,” Medin said. “A lot of press coverage means you don’t watch the news at 10.”
Medin ultimately was dismissed from the jury pool. But he told us he and the people who ended up on the jury blocked out all the pre-trial publicity and focused on the facts.
“We couldn’t study media. If we saw it on TV, we’d have to turn it off or leave the room.” Medin said. “Put yourself in their position and would you want a fair trial? You could be there.”
Janet Lyness is the Johnson County Attorney. She tells us as a prosecutor she looks for jurors who can process complicated information and makes a decision based solely on the evidence.
“You’re trying to find people who can be fair, who can be impartial, who aren’t going to have a bias one way or the other,” Lyness said.
Lyness said the prosecution and the defense ask potential jurors lots of rigorous questions as a group and individually in front of the judge.
“Have they heard anything about this case? What do they know about it? Is that going to influence them in any way?” Lyness said. “Try to find out if they know anybody who’s been accused of this. What do they think about this crime?”
“You can get all of their Facebook stuff, you can ask them about those questions, you can ask them about what they’ve read, the last time they read about this article—can they turn off their phones while this process is going on?”
Alfredo Parrish is a criminal-defense lawyer.
“I like jurors who tend to say that they’re going to listen to both sides,” said Parrish.
Parrish said he looks for specific characteristics.
“I like families who’ve had some adversity, I like people who have had adversity themselves, I like people who believe that law-enforcement officials can make mistakes,” said Parrish. “I want to know do they have any biases related to race, nationality, religion.”
The Mollie Tibbetts case also raises the specter of potential ethnic bias among possible jurors.
Tibbetts was a 20-year old student at the University of Iowa, and white. Bahena Rivera is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, and Latino.
“If some people think because you’re Hispanic, you’re more likely to commit a crime—these are questions you’re going to have to ask jurors,” said Parrish.
Lyness said a biased juror, even if they seem to favor prosecution, could end up hurting in the long run.
“If they’re on the jury and the defense tries to bring an appeal, and says this person wasn’t fair, they shouldn’t have been on the jury, they said they couldn’t be fair, we’re going to get that case reversed by the Supreme Court,” said Lyness. “I don’t want to have that happen.”
“I’m a strong believer in the jury system. The juror more likely than not, gets it right,” said Parrish. “I find jurors in this state to be very open minded.”
“We mess up, we make the wrong decision, and people will be affected either way the decision went,’ said Medin. “The way that our whole criminal justice systems works rests upon the backs of ordinary people like you and me.’
Regardless of whether you're a prosecutor or a defense attorney, the main goal is selecting a jury that can bear an open mind regardless of who they are, where they're from or what they may have heard about the case.