MISSOULA – In the nearly nine months after she pushed her husband of eight days off a cliff in Glacier National Park, Jordan Graham has shown little emotion. But just minutes before a federal judge sentenced her to 30 years in prison for the murder of Cody Johnson in July 2013, Graham broke down.
“A day doesn’t go by when I don’t think about what happened and ask myself why I didn’t do something different,” Graham said, crying and looking at her dead husband’s mother, Sherry Johnson. “I think about Cody every day and I never wanted it to go this way.”
“I still love Cody,” she said.
Graham’s statements were delivered during an emotional sentencing in Missoula on Thursday, the conclusion to a case that garnered media attention from around the world. Along with the prison term, Graham, 22, also must spend five years on supervised release and pay nearly $17,000 in restitution for the search and recovery efforts after she reported her husband missing. Graham later admitted to pushing Johnson off a cliff inside Glacier Park, but not until after concocting a web of lies she told to friends, family and law enforcement. In December, after a three-and-a-half day trial, Graham shocked those in the courtroom by pleading guilty to second-degree murder. On Thursday, federal prosecutors formally dropped the charges of first-degree murder and making false statements to authorities.
Two days prior to her sentencing, Graham asked a judge to allow her to withdraw her guilty plea. Attorneys for Graham claimed that the federal prosecutors’ offer to dismiss the charge of first-degree murder during the trial in exchange for a guilty plea to second-degree murder was “nothing but an empty promise” after the assistant U.S. attorney recommended on March 18 that Graham receive life in prison. That motion was addressed in court Thursday morning.
“Everyone agreed in that moment (in December) that this was a reckless mistake, but today they are arguing that it was a premeditated killing,” said Graham’s attorney, Michael Donahoe. “Vigorously arguing premeditation in a second-degree murder charge is not fair and just.”
But prosecutors, led by assistant U.S. attorneys Kris McLean and Zeno Baucus, argued that Graham’s motion to withdraw was without merit and that evidence presented at trial supports both first- and second-degree murder charges; with this in mind, they argued that they are free to recommend any punishment within the sentencing guidelines.
“We told them if she pled guilty to count two, (second-degree murder), we would drop the charges of first-degree murder and false statements,” McLean said. “But that was the extent of our promises.”
In the end, U.S. District Judge Don Molloy dismissed the motion to withdraw the plea, allowing the March 27 sentencing to move forward. Before Molloy could hand down his decision, however, attorneys on both sides argued about various enhancements to the charges. Among the enhancements was the prosecution’s desire to punish Graham for using minors, specifically her brother Michael Rutledge, in an attempt cover up her crime when she told him to lie to friends and family about who found Johnson’s body. On July 11, Rutledge was standing next to Graham when she found the body, but she apparently told the 16-year-old to say that park rangers first made the discovery. Molloy dismissed this request from the prosecution.
The defense followed by objecting to Graham having to pay $16,910.40 to the Department of the Interior for the cost of a helicopter, supplies and overtime expenses used in the effort to recover Johnson’s body at the bottom of a ravine. Donahoe argued that the National Park Service was going to have to remove the body anyway, regardless of the criminal investigation. But Baucus said the body would not have been at the bottom of the ravine had Graham not pushed him. Molloy eventually ruled that Graham had to pay for the recovery operations.
Shortly after 11:15 a.m., Donahoe and Graham took to the podium in the packed courtroom to ask the judge to deliver a lesser sentence. A second room with a live feed of the court proceedings was set up for the overflow crowd. Many of Johnson’s friends and family wore blue ribbons with a small picture of him. In his final arguments, Donahoe reasoned that Graham was a child-like person who was scared and even though she didn’t tell law enforcement what happened for nine days, she left clues of the truth because she felt guilty.
“If we stick to the evidence, you’ll see that this is a troubled person and the deception she created was born of fear and panic,” he said. “But she left clues and whatever credit you can give her for that, please do.”
Graham then took to the podium and apologized to Johnson’s mother.
“I cannot imagine the amount of pain I caused you. I took the most precious gift you had and I’m sorry for that,” Graham said. “Life is a precious thing and it needs to be cherished. It can also be taken in a split second.”
She also wondered aloud what might have happened had she not pushed Johnson off the cliff, noting that their first anniversary, June 29, would be just a few months away.
“There could have even been a baby on the way and we would have been the happiest we’d ever been,” she said.
Molloy then outlined to Graham the guidelines for sentencing. The judge said he still didn’t fully believe Graham’s version of events and that what she did in the days following Johnson’s murder were “the actions of someone who is only interested in protecting herself.”
“She was a normal person on the surface, but a normal person does not kill her husband of eight days and then lie about that,” he said. “I don’t think anyone will ever know what happened on that ledge.”
Next, members of Johnson’s family spoke, urging the judge to issue a life sentence to Graham. Besides Johnson’s mother, two uncles and an aunt spoke.
“Cody’s dream was to buy a home and have a family and my dream was to be a grandmother and watch those children grow up,” Sherry Johnson said. “Today and every day, I live with a broken heart.”
“Jordan should rot in prison,” Johnson’s uncle, Timothy Manning, said. “I’m not a religious man, but I do know that Jordan knows ‘thou shall not kill.’”
“Jordan Graham has taken a beautiful place, Glacier National Park, and made it nothing more than a grave site for this family,” Jerry Watson, another of Johnson’s uncle, said.
Molloy then handed down his sentence of 365 months, or about 30 years, in prison, with five years of supervised release. He also demanded that Graham reimburse the Department of Interior for its rescue efforts and ruled that she can not make any money selling the story of what happened to her husband. Graham was then led away in handcuffs.
Graham’s attorneys, Donahoe and Andy Nelson, spoke with the media following the ruling and said that it was up to their client whether Graham would appeal the sentencing. She has 14 days to file such a request. One of the attorneys also asked that the media and public respect the privacy of both families involved in the case.
Following the sentencing, U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana Michael Cotter held a press conference. During a prepared remark, he thanked law enforcement officials at all levels of the investigation, including in the Kalispell Police Department and at Glacier National Park, for their hard work in this case.
“The sentence imposed today will never bring back Cody,” Cotter said. “The sentence will not fill the void or erase the pain experienced every day by Cody’s mother, who will live out the rest of her life without her only child, her son Cody, or without ever holding grandchildren in her arms. (But) it will send a message that if you kill someone and are subject to federal jurisdiction you will be prosecuted swiftly and severely punished for your crime.”
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