(Reuters) – A Mexican farmworker was found guilty on Friday of murdering an Iowa college student three years ago, who prosecutors said enraged him by rejecting his advances.
The case was seized on in 2018 as a talking point by former President Donald Trump as he railed against illegal immigration.
A jury in Davenport, Iowa, found Cristhian Bahena Rivera guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old University of Iowa student.
Bahena Rivera, 26, who had been wearing translation headphones throughout the trial, did not visibly react to the verdict. He faces a life sentence without parole.
Tibbetts disappeared while out for a run on the evening of July 18, 2018, in Brooklyn, Iowa.
Bahena Rivera, who had entered the United States illegally, was arrested about a month after her disappearance after police said they identified him from a security video taken from a camera outside a Brooklyn house near where Tibbetts was last seen running.
After an 11-hour interrogation, police said Bahena Rivera led them to Tibbetts’ body in a cornfield. She had been stabbed nine to 12 times, prosecutors said.
Shortly after Bahena Rivera’s arrest, the case was brought up by Trump, who had made building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border a signature goal of his administration.
“A person came in from Mexico, illegally, and killed her,” Trump said in a taped speech posted on Twitter at the time. “We need the wall. We need our immigration laws changed.”
In testimony this week, Bahena Rivera blamed the murder on two armed men with covered faces who he said ordered him to drive them down a rural road, where they put the body in the trunk of his car and warned him that they would harm his ex-girlfriend and young daughter if he told the police. He said he then placed Tibbetts’ body in the cornfield.
He admitted that he had originally told police that he approached Tibbetts, who became upset. He said he then “blacked out.”
In his summation to the jury, defense attorney Chad Frese called the state’s investigation of the case sloppy.
Prosecutor Scott Brown, an assistant state attorney general, ridiculed Bahena Rivera’s story of the “two phantom men” and asked the jury to convict him based on the “overwhelming” evidence against him.
(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)