JURORS have been warned about the "gruesome evidence" they will be shown as opening arguments commenced in the Cristhian Bahena Rivera trial for the murder of Mollie Tibbetts today.
On Tuesday, eight women and seven men were selected – the majority of them white- after attorneys grilled a pool of 183 people about Tibbetts' case, police, and immigration in Iowa.
Read our Mollie Tibbetts live blog for the very latest news and updates…
Rivera, a Mexican national who came illegally came to the US as a teenager, is charged with first-degree murder for the alleged 2018 slaying of the University of Iowa student and dumping her body in a secluded cornfield.
After the jury selection yesterday, Prosecutor Scott Brown warned they will be shown graphic photos and hear disturbing testimony about the jogger's stabbing death.
"We’re going to talk about the violent death of a young girl, Mollie Tibbetts," said Brown. "It’s not going to be pleasant."
According to KCCI, the only non-white juror in the immigrant's trial is one woman who may be of Hispanic or Native American descent.
Jury selection for the high-profile trial began on Monday morning in a Scott County courtroom after proceedings were halted for several months as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It's hard when you're talking race, you're talking major biases, it's hard to say ‘Yes,’ in front of a group that they don't [know]," West Des Moines attorneys Trever Hook told KCCI about jurors' responses.
"They're strangers to each other, let alone in a courtroom, Right? So, it doesn't surprise me," added the lawyer, who isn't involved in the ongoing trial.
Attorney Bill Kutmus told the publication "it should have been done individually because immigration is in the forefront of everybody's mind today."
If jurors expressed that they had already formed an opinion on the case, they were questioned privately but this wasn't necessarily grounds for their removal, reports say.
Rivera will participate in the trial through a Spanish-speaking interpreter.
Legal experts have claimed that ensuring a fair trial for the farmhand will be difficult after former President Donald Trump weighed in on the case.
Tibbetts was brutally attacked and killed three years ago in July 2018 while going for her routine jog in the small, 1,700 person town of Brooklyn, Iowa.
Rivera, a father of one, was blasted by Trump as a criminal who exploited lax immigration laws and was used as an example by the ex-president as he pushed for harsher immigration policies ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
The Associated Press noted that Rivera will face a jury that is mostly white and that takes place in a state which Trump carried in the 2020 election.
The 20-year-old, who was studying to become a child psychologist, never made it back to the house where she was dog sitting for her boyfriend and his brother.
Her disappearance sparked a massive search involving hundreds of law enforcement and volunteers.
Rivera was identified as a suspect a month later after surveillance video revealed a dark Chevy Malibu appearing to circle Tibbetts as she ran.
A deputy later spotted the farmhand driving in the town in the same vehicle.
Investigators interviewed Rivera at the dairy farm where he was working and he initially denied involvement in her death.
After hours of interrogation, he confessed to approaching Tibbetts as she ran, killing her in a panic when she threatened to call the cops, and hiding her body in a cornfield.
Rivera reportedly led police to the place where he had hidden her body under leaves.
An autopsy report revealed Tibbets died of sharp force injuries after she was stabbed.
The murder weapon has not been discovered but blood found in the trunk of Rivera’s vehicle matched Tibbetts’.
Bennett has described her as an extremely likable victim who “probably didn’t have an enemy in the world.”
He added that the jurors are also likely to question Rivera’s immigration status due to his use of an interpreter, even if the judge doesn’t allow mention of him being undocumented.
Legal experts told Associated Press that they believe jurors who admit a bias against noncitizens or non-English speakers could be disqualified.
They added that Trump supporters who remember his descriptions of Rivera as an “illegal alien” who killed “an incredible, beautiful young woman” may also be dismissed.
Other jurors who may be dismissed include female runners scared by the crime and those who posted social media opinions about the highly-publicized case.
The trial had already been moved 100 miles away to Scott County after defense lawyers noted local residents had “very strong opinions” about Rivera’s guilt and Mexican nationality.
Rivera’s trial is expected to last two weeks.
Judge Joel Yates has said he expects jury selection will last at least two days with opening statements predicted to begin by Wednesday.
“That seems like a really short time for jury selection, given the issues this case raises,” said Iowa defense lawyer Dan Vondra.
“Jury selection is the best way that I have seen to get people to open up and talk about their background. If you limit that dialogue, that’s where you run into the risk of having a mistake made.”
The trial has been barred from the public due to Covid restrictions but Judge Yates is allowing it to be live-streamed by media outlets.
If convicted, Rivera faces life in prison without parole.
Defense lawyers have not indicated what approach they will take.
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