A Kalispell newlywed accused of pushing her husband to his death in Glacier National Park pleaded guilty to second-degree murder early Thursday afternoon, and will likely spend the next two decades in a federal prison.
News of the plea agreement for 22-year-old Jordan Linn Graham came as a jury was about to hear closing arguments during the fourth day of her trial in U.S. District Court in Missoula.
District Judge Donald Molloy accepted the guilty plea, but said she first had to tell him the truth.
“I’m unwilling to accept some kind of fabrication,” he said.
Afterward, Graham was handcuffed and taken into custody by U.S. marshals.
Graham told the judge that she and 25-year-old Cody Lee Johnson were on The Loop trail in Glacier Park last July 7, arguing over her qualms about their eight-day marriage.
“I wasn’t feeling like I should after you get married,” Graham said.
The couple walked down a rocky embankment off the trail. She said Johnson grabbed her arm during the argument.
“That’s why I got angry,” she said.
After telling him to let go, she brushed him away and then she pushed him because she feared he would restrain her or hold her down. The shove sent her husband over the edge of a steep cliff and to his death at the bottom of a ravine. Both had been facing the cliff at the time, she said.
Instead of getting help, Graham fled.
“I ran back up to the car and left,” Graham told the judge. “I was scared of what happened and in that moment I was so scared I didn’t know what to do.”
Graham told Molloy that she already had the car keys before she pushed her husband, so she quickly left the scene – without checking to see if Johnson had survived the fall. The couple’s cellphones had remained in the car during their hike.
Shortly after the incident, Graham exchanged text messages with a friend from church about dance moves and an upcoming luau.
“That was my personal way of maybe just trying to make myself calm down,” Graham told Molloy.
According to the plea agreement, prosecutors will drop charges of first-degree murder and making a false statement to law enforcement officers. Graham faces a maximum sentence of life in prison, as well as up to $250,000 in fines and the possibility of five years of supervised release.
Her sentencing was set for March 27.
Molloy said he will take the severity of the crime, as well as Graham’s clean record, into consideration at sentencing.
Based on federal sentencing guidelines, the judge warned the young woman that she could easily be sentenced to 19 to 25 years in prison. Her attorneys can request fewer years, while prosecutors can request a harsher sentence.
“All that is is a starting point,” Molloy cautioned, as a life sentence is possible.
Molloy questioned Graham to be certain that she was not coerced into accepting the plea agreement. Graham said she understood she would lose certain civil liberties and rights, and that she would not have the possibility of parole in federal prison.
When Graham showed hesitancy when asked if she understood sentencing, Molloy reminded her of the gravity of pleading guilty.
“Look, you’re looking at maybe putting your life in a federal prison for the balance,” he said.
In pleading guilty to second-degree murder, Graham agreed that the shove was a “reckless act,” but said she didn’t realize the danger of their surroundings when she pushed Johnson.
Prosecutors had alleged that Graham intentionally pushed her husband, while defense attorneys said she acted in self-defense and that Johnson’s death was an accident.
After the trial, federal public defender Michael Donahoe said prosecutors presented Graham’s lawyers with the plea agreement and that he was legally obligated to share it with her.
The admission by Graham spurred tears from Johnson’s mother, Sherry Johnson. When Molloy remanded Graham to U.S. marshals, an exclamation of “yes” was whispered from the gallery.
“The family is very thankful for the outcome. It’s been emotional,” said Celeste Watson, who walked out of the courthouse with Johnson’s mom.
“I think they should’ve held out for first (degree murder). She would have been found guilty. At least no parole,” an anonymous Twitter handle set up to advocate for Johnson tweeted to a reporter.
“Please send thoughts & prayers to Cody’s mom Sherry. Had a tough week, but she’s a true inspiration. Love you Sherry,” @whokilledCody tweeted later.
“I’m just glad that she finally came out and confessed,” Amy Hess said of Graham’s plea.
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Hess, a mutual friend of the couple, testified earlier in the trial that she had seen Graham wearing Johnson’s ring at church July 7 and said she feels a sense of relief that the trial is finished.
As for moving on after the tragedy, she said she will “just look to the Lord for support and strength.”
Defense attorneys rested their case shortly before 11 a.m. Thursday, after prosecutors wrapped up their presentations earlier in the morning.
The jury was not in the room when Graham pleaded guilty.
As their case, defense attorneys called to the stand a host of family members and acquaintances who testified that while Graham is reserved, she seemed happy about her marriage to Johnson. They also presented jurors with Johnson’s prolific record of traffic tickets.
Defenders played segments of a video from Graham and Johnson’s wedding; the video shows a happy couple who often giggled and smiled at each other and who kissed after their first dance.
Graham cried while the video of their first dance played on the computer monitor in front of her.
Linda Rickford, Graham’s grandmother, testified that Graham cried tears of joy when walking down the aisle last June 29.
“She seemed like she was very happy,” Rickford said.
During Johnson’s funeral, Graham seemed upset and did not use her phone, contrary to previous testimony, Rickford said. “And she would lay her head on my shoulder.”
Several witnesses testified Thursday that Graham is typically reserved.
Sara Bigelow, who employed Graham as a baby sitter for her two children, said she was always prompt and cared for her kids well.
But over the several years Graham worked for the family, she was quiet.
“She’s always just been very shy and standoffish,” Bigelow said.
Graham borrowed Bigelow’s wedding gown for her own wedding, and Bigelow identified a shawl that went with the dress in a picture of garbage a detective collected from Graham’s home after Johnson went missing.
Graham’s mother also took the stand, and said that she and her daughter were close but rarely had intimate conversations.
Lindy Rutledge said she co-signed a loan for her daughter so she could spend time in California to surprise Johnson with a custom song for their first dance. When a loan payment wasn’t made on time, Rutledge gave Graham $3,000 to pay off the loan so Rutledge’s credit wouldn’t be damaged.
Graham never told her that she had pushed Johnson, Rutledge said. “She never said anything like that to me, ever.”
Elizabeth Shea, who wrote the custom song for the couple’s wedding, said she found Graham reserved during the time they spent together in California.
“I could tell that she didn’t open up easily,” Shea told the court.
However, when Shea asked Graham about wedding plans, “she would light up.”
Defense attorneys also called Davy Daniels, a manager at Riddle’s Jewelry, to testify about the nature of tungsten rings, the same material that Johnson wore as a wedding band.
Johnson was found face down in a pool of water at the bottom of a ravine under The Loop area, without his wedding ring. Graham had told authorities that Johnson was wearing his ring when she last saw him.
Tungsten is difficult to scratch because it is so hard, but that makes it brittle and it often chips or breaks.
Assistant U.S. attorneys Zeno Baucus and Kris McLean contended over the previous three days that Graham intentionally pushed Johnson and then knowingly lied to authorities.
The prosecutors showed police interviews of conflicting statements and called on friends who testified that Graham’s story about the night’s events were inconsistent.
In one interview, Graham said she and Johnson had not argued. In another interview, she said they had argued but that Johnson had told her to never tell others when they had fights.
She also told detectives that she had not been home when Johnson left with out-of-state friends for a joyride on the night of July 7. Later, she said that she was in the house when Johnson left. Meanwhile, she told her matron of honor, Kimberly Martinez, that she had seen Johnson leave in a dark-colored vehicle with out-of-state plates and had followed the vehicle to Hungry Horse.
On July 16, Graham confessed to FBI investigator Stacey Smiedala that she pushed Johnson out of anger while they argued after she told him she had wedding blues. She told the agent she still loved Johnson and hadn’t wanted a divorce.
Nearly two months later, Graham was arrested and put on house arrest while she awaited this week’s trial.