Defense expert: Iowa murder suspect’s confession unreliable

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© 2019 Brian Powers/The Register

Cristhian Bahena Rivera, left, talks to his defense attorney, Jennifer Frese, through an interpreter during an evidence suppression hearing at the Poweshiek County Courthouse on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019, in Montezuma, Iowa. A judge ruled Thursday that he will not consider written testimony from Rivera, who claims he was unaware of his legal rights when he allegedly confessed to killing University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts. (Brian Powers/The Des Moines Register via AP)

MONTEZUMA, IA – 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 that 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 that he should be cross-examined about his claim that 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 that he “blacked out,” but he said he bloody body in his trunk.