Jordan Linn Graham shocked a packed courtroom Thursday afternoon by pleading guilty to second-degree murder just before closing arguments were set to begin, but testimony in the case has not finished.
During a sentencing hearing set for March 27, family and friends of both Graham and the husband she killed will have an opportunity to address U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy.
Graham, too, will be allowed to make a statement.
That testimony will be among the factors Molloy will weigh when sentencing Graham, Missoula attorney Paul Ryan said Friday.
“We know she did it, but why did she do it. That’s the big question everybody’s going to want to have answered,” said Ryan, who has extensive experience in criminal defense over his 20 years practicing law in Missoula.
Graham, 22, will remain in the Missoula County jail with no bail pending her sentencing, according to an announcement from the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office. She is under the custody of U.S. marshals, and will eventually be sent to a federal penitentiary.
The Kalispell woman pleaded guilty to pushing her husband of eight days, 25-year-old Cody Lee Johnson, off a cliff in Glacier National Park last July 7. In exchange, prosecutors dropped a charge of first-degree murder and a charge of making a false statement to law enforcement officers.
Ultimately, Molloy, who has presided over the case, will decide how much time and where Graham will serve in a federal prison. She will have no opportunity for parole, and no portion of the sentence will be suspended, Ryan said.
And Molloy can sentence Graham to up to five years of supervised release once her sentence has concluded, Ryan added.
A presentence report will delve into the details of Graham’s life, from her education to any trauma or abuse she may have experienced to her employment, and criminal and chemical dependency histories.
“They’re basically making a recommendation to the judge as to what ultimately the judge should do,” Ryan said about the report.
Molloy did not specify during Thursday’s proceedings in U.S. District Court in Missoula whether Graham will be required to undergo a mental evaluation, but Ryan said it’s likely that she will as part of the presentence report.
“The defense will want it as much as anybody to explain why (the crime) happened,” he said.
Federal sentencing guidelines take into consideration the type of crime and criminal history, among other factors. Based solely on Graham’s crime – considered a level 38 – and history – she doesn’t have one – she would face 19 to 25 years.
The federal system is more rigid than the state court system on sentencing, Ryan said.
Nonetheless, federal judges still have some latitude in the final sentence, he added, and Molloy is a “strong, independent” judge.
When Molloy accepted Graham’s plea Thursday, he told her he was convinced himself and confident the jury, if they had been allowed to deliberate, would have returned a guilty verdict on the charge of second-degree murder.
Second-degree murder requires that the perpetrator knowingly and unlawfully killed someone with forethought and malice or with extreme recklessness and disregard for human life.
When asked what she understood the charge to be by Molloy on Thursday, Graham replied, “That you killed somebody with extreme recklessness and disregard for human life.”
She also admitted that pushing Johnson was a reckless act.
Molloy can sentence Graham to additional or fewer years than the federal guideline, depending on information included in the presentence report, testimony during the sentencing hearing, letters of support, lawyer requests, victims’ feedback and more factors.
There is no minimum sentence; the maximum sentence for second-degree murder is life in prison, Ryan said.
Graham also faces up to $250,000 in fines.
After Molloy hands down a sentence, Graham will be transferred to a federal penitentiary. None exist in Montana. The federal prison system has different security levels, and Molloy will determine at what level Graham will spend her term, Ryan said.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons will determine where she serves her sentence.