MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — After lying to family, friends and police about what happened to her new husband when he disappeared in July, a Montana woman finally came clean to a federal judge in a surprising end to her murder trial.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy told Jordan Graham on Thursday that before he accepted her last-minute deal with prosecutors to plead guilty to second-degree murder in the death of Cody Johnson, he wanted to hear what really happened.
Johnson's body was found at the bottom of a cliff in Glacier National Park three days after he was reported missing on July 8, and 12 days after he and Graham, 22, were married.
Molloy said she had told different stories to different people about Johnson's disappearance and death, and now she was going to give him the facts.
Graham said she decided to talk to Johnson, 25, about her unhappiness eight days after their wedding. So the evening of July 7, just about sunset, the couple went to a popular spot in Glacier park called The Loop. They went over a retaining wall along the Going-to-the-Sun Road and climbed down a rocky, steep slope to the edge of a cliff and a steep drop of a couple hundred feet to a ravine.
There, facing the void, she told Johnson that she wasn't really happy and that she was not feeling like she believed she ought to after being married, she said.
They argued. It escalated, culminating with Johnson grabbing her, Graham said. She thought he was going to pull her toward him.
That's when she became angry, she said.
"I wasn't thinking about where we were," she said. "I just pushed."
She said she brushed away his hand and then pushed her new husband with one hand on his back and one hand on his shoulder, and he went over.
It wasn't planned, but she said it was "definitely reckless with an extreme disregard" for life.
Afterward, she ran back to where the car was parked. She had the keys in her pocket. She drove back home to Kalispell, about an hour away, without seeking help. She sent text messages to friends on the drive back — but told nobody what had just happened.
"At that moment, I was so scared, I didn't know what to do," she said.
The next day, after Johnson was reported missing by his boss, Graham said that he had sent her a text message that he was going off for a "joyride" with friends from Washington state.
That story quickly unraveled when the versions she told to friends, relatives and authorities didn't match.
She attracted further suspicion when she was able to lead park rangers to the body, saying it was a place he wanted to see before he died.
She finally acknowledged that she was with Johnson on the cliff after investigators confronted her with a security camera photo of the couple entering the park. She told investigators it was a tragic accident and Johnson fell when she went to remove his arm.
Prosecutors charged her with first-degree murder, second-degree murder and making a false statement to authorities. Prosecutors spent three days this week laying out their case at trial.
Her team of public defenders spent Thursday morning trying to improve her image to jurors with pictures and videos of a smiling Graham before and during her wedding.
Graham did not take the witness stand in her defense.
Before closing arguments were about to begin, the attorneys for both sides announced the surprise agreement: Graham would plead guilty to second-degree murder, and prosecutors would drop the first-degree murder charge and the false statement charge.
Second-degree murder carries a maximum sentence of life in prison and a $250,000 fine.
She is scheduled to be sentenced on March 27.