A Kalispell newlywed accused of pushing her husband off a cliff in Glacier National Park remained in custody Wednesday, but a federal judge said he will decide by noon Thursday whether to release her pending trial.
In U.S. District Court in Missoula, attorneys for 22-year-old Jordan Linn Graham said she is neither a flight risk nor a danger to others.
Prosecutors, however, said Graham poses a safety risk to herself and has repeatedly lied to law enforcement officers about the circumstances surrounding her husband’s disappearance.
Graham is accused of pushing her husband, 25-year-old Cody Lee Johnson, off a cliff in Glacier Park during an argument July 7. The couple married on June 29.
The purpose of Wednesday afternoon’s detention hearing was for U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah Lynch to determine if Graham poses a flight or safety risk, or if she could be released and under what conditions.
If Graham is a risk, investigators should have taken her into custody on July 16 when she allegedly confessed to pushing Johnson off a steep section of The Loop trail, defense attorneys told Lynch.
Instead, prosecutors waited to arrest and accuse Graham of second-degree murder this past Monday.
“We’re almost two months down the road and now she’s a danger to the community?” said Andrew Nelson, one of the public defenders appointed to represent the woman.
Graham has no record of violent behavior and the July 7 incident was an isolated event involving two people, he argued. “It’s not part of a larger conspiracy.”
However, prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Graham was not alone when she found Johnson’s body near The Loop on July 11, just off Glacier’s Going-to-the-Sun Road.
On the witness stand, Graham’s mother, Lindele Rutledge, said she was in the park with her daughter when Johnson’s body was found, but that she had not walked down the slope with her daughter and a friend to search for Johnson.
Neither did she report the body to park authorities with her daughter. Rutledge said one of Graham’s friends was with her at that time.
Prosecuting attorneys also shared information that on July 10 Graham received an email from a person named Tony who said that Johnson had died in a fall and that the cops didn’t need to continue their investigation.
That email was later traced to Graham’s stepfather, Steven Rutledge, and it was discovered that the account had been created the same day the email was sent, said FBI Special Agent Steven Liss, who filed the complaint and affidavit that led to Graham’s arrest.
Much of Wednesday afternoon’s testimony had nothing to do with whether Graham poses a risk to the community or if she should be considered a flight risk, Nelson said.
Graham should be released from custody pending trial and allowed to reside with her mother and stepfather in Kalispell, Nelson said.
“There’s no legal reason that she shouldn’t,” he said.
Graham, who grew up and has family in Kalispell, would submit to whatever release conditions the judge deems necessary, Nelson added.
Prosecuting attorneys conceded that they don’t consider Graham a flight risk, but asked Lynch to consider the serious nature of the offense and to keep her in custody.
Graham admitted to pushing her husband off a cliff, said Kris McLean, assistant U.S. attorney.
“That sort of conduct does in fact create a risk to the community,” he said.
Johnson’s uncle reported him missing on July 8, Liss said.
After two interviews with investigators and after finding Johnson’s body, Graham on July 16 voluntarily came to the Kalispell Police Department and said that she and Johnson argued and drove to Glacier, where they continued to argue along a trail in The Loop area.
The argument intensified and at one point Johnson grabbed Graham’s arm and Graham removed his hand, according to an affidavit filed in support of the murder charge.
Liss testified that when law enforcement officers asked if she could have walked away at that point, “she said yes.”
Instead, Graham said she pushed Johnson from behind, causing him to fall face first off a cliff, Liss said.
Graham was not arrested at that time, and the investigation in pursuit of additional evidence and corroborating information continued, the FBI agent said. “So the investigation was still ongoing at that point.”
Prosecuting attorneys also said Graham has repeatedly lied to law enforcement officers and poses a safety risk to herself due to her mental state, especially now that she is under the added stress of being taken into custody and facing court proceedings.
“There’s a lot more stress now than before the incident on the defendant,” McLean said.
If she were released, “what other steps would she take to cover up her crime?” he said.
Before Johnson’s disappearance, Graham sent emails and text messages to her maid of honor expressing her reservations about being married, Liss testified Wednesday.
“She was under a lot of stress,” he said from the witness stand.
In one email to her maid of honor, she wrote that she didn’t want to wake up and would be better off dead, Liss said.
Graham was interviewed several times during the investigation, he said.
Originally, she said she and Johnson had been at dinner and when they returned to the house, she left to get her cellphone charger that was in another location. When she returned, she saw Johnson get into a dark-colored vehicle with out-of-state plates.
Liss said Graham told others in the community different stories, including that she and Johnson had argued, he had scratched her with a key and left, and that he had gone for a ride to Hungry Horse.
When she was taken into custody at the Kalispell Police Department on Monday, Graham seemed surprised, Liss said.
Then, she showed little emotion, he said.
“It was just a flat demeanor, like there was no emotion,” he said.
After the hearing, Graham’s attorney, Michael Donahoe, said he felt the court was receptive to the testimony and evidence and now it’s a matter of waiting until the written decision is posted.