Federal prosecutors are urging a judge to reject a Kalispell woman’s 11th-hour request to withdraw her guilty plea to charges that she pushed her husband off a cliff in Glacier National Park, arguing it is without merit and that an upcoming sentencing hearing should move forward.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Kris McLean and Zeno Baucus filed a motion Wednesday asking U.S. District Judge Don Molloy to deny Jordan Graham’s request to withdraw a guilty plea to second degree murder. In December, Graham entered a guilty plea to pushing her new husband, Cody Johnson, off of a cliff near the Loop trail in Glacier National Park. The murder occurred July 7.
Graham is scheduled for sentencing Thursday March 27 in federal court in Missoula. Now attorneys await a response from U.S. District Judge Don Molloy who will issue an order after weighing both arguments.
On the eve of her sentencing in federal court, the 22-year-old Kalispell woman asked a judge to allow her to withdraw her guilty plea.
Attorneys for Graham claim that federal prosecutors’ offer to dismiss the charge of first degree murder in return for a guilty plea to second degree murder was “nothing but an empty promise” after the assistant U.S. attorneys recommended last week that Graham receive a sentence of life in prison, according to court papers filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Missoula.
Graham pleaded guilty Dec. 12 following a 3.5-day murder trial, changing her plea just moments before closing arguments were set to begin. In exchange for her plea, prosecutors said they would recommend that a judge drop the first-degree murder charge.
On Wednesday afternoon, federal prosecutors issued a response to the motion of withdrawal. In it prosecutors say their offer to move to drop the first-degree murder charge at sentencing did not include a promise to recommend a sentence less than life imprisonment, and that no written plea deal exists. The evidence presented at trial, they argue in court papers, supports both first- and second-degree murder charges, and so they are free to recommend any punishment within the sentencing guidelines.
By dropping the first-degree murder charge, which carries a mandatory minimum penalty of life in prison, the prosecutors say they give the judge leniency at sentencing that he wouldn’t otherwise have.
McLean also wrote that just because the government dropped the charges of first-degree murder and making false statements against Graham, the evidence that was presented during the trial could not be ignored.
“As dictated by clear statutory authority and sentencing policy, the government and the court are not constrained by the defendant’s description of events in pushing (Johnson) off the cliff,” McLean wrote.
Defense attorneys say the prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation signals an about-face, and warrants Graham’s request to withdraw her guilty plea.
“In its oral plea agreement with the defendant the government agreed to dismiss Count One of her Indictment, the first degree murder count,” Graham’s attorney Andrew Nelson wrote in a court brief filed Tuesday. “Nevertheless in its sentencing papers the government has argued that (the) defendant is in fact a first degree offender and should be sentenced as such … Essentially the government is arguing that the court should reject the plea agreement by asking that defendant be sentenced as a first degree offender.”
Last week, Assistant U.S. Attorney McLean filed paperwork asking that Graham receive life in prison, and nothing less than 50 years.
Graham’s attorneys, Nelson and Michael Donahoe, argue that she should receive 10 years in prison and an additional five years of supervised release.
“At the sentencing phase the government reneged on its promise and instead decided to argue vigorously in its sentencing papers that defendant acted with both planning and premeditation,” according to the brief filed by defense the attorneys.
After Graham pushed Johnson off a cliff near The Loop, she fled the scene and returned to Kalispell. In the following days, she told friends, family and law enforcement that Johnson had left their home in Kalispell that night with some “car buddies” from Washington and did not return. Friends and law enforcement were suspicious, especially after Graham discovered Johnson’s body at the bottom of a ravine on July 11, telling authorities she had a feeling because it was a spot in Glacier Park he wanted to see the overlook it in his lifetime.
On July 16, Graham met with an FBI agent in Kalispell and admitted murdering Johnson a week earlier after she was confronted with security camera footage that placed Johnson and her husband inside the park. On Oct. 3, she was charged with first- and second-degree murder and with lying to authorities.
On Dec. 9, Graham’s trial began in Missoula. For two-and-a-half days, federal prosecutors, led by McLean and Assistant U.S. Attorney Zeno Baucus, presented evidence that Graham purposely murdered her husband. More than 30 witnesses took the stand, including Johnson’s mother, who broke down during one of the most dramatic moments of the trial.
The government rested its case on Dec. 12 and handed the floor over to the defense, which tried to paint a picture of Graham as a “child-like” person who wasn’t ready for the responsibility of marriage. The defense attorneys said what happened on the night of July 7 was a tragic accident and that Graham lied about Johnson’s death because she thought no one would believe her side of the story.
Just moments before closing arguments, Graham shocked the courtroom when she pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.
In a tense scene, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy asked Graham to tell the truth of what happened that night on a cliff in Glacier National Park. Graham told the court her version of events.
“I was there on the ledge with Cody, there was a heated argument and I had no regard for our surroundings and I pushed,” she said. “I was scared and I didn’t know what to do.”
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