Montana bride seeks to drop guilty plea in husband's cliff death

Reuters News
Posted: Mar 26, 2014 1:16 AM

By Laura Zuckerman

(Reuters) - A Montana bride accused of pushing her husband off a cliff to his death at Glacier National Park asked a judge on Tuesday to withdraw a guilty plea she entered as part of a deal with prosecutors to avoid a life sentence, court records show.

The bride, 22-year-old Jordan Graham, in December pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the July 7 death of her husband of eight days, Cody Johnson. In exchange, prosecutors dropped a first-degree murder charge, which alleges premeditation and carries a mandatory life sentence.

The sentence sought by prosecutors exceeded the prison term recommended by a pre-sentencing investigative panel, which advised a term of 24 to 30 years, according to court documents. Defense sought a 10-year sentence.

Sentencing in the high-profile case was scheduled for Thursday.

U.S. prosecutors claimed Graham deliberately shoved Johnson, 25, off a cliff during an argument while hiking a steep trail at Glacier, then lied to investigators and tried to cover up the crime.

After striking the December plea deal just as closing arguments in her murder trial were set to begin, Graham admitted her guilt to U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, who presided over the trial in Missoula, Montana.

She told Molloy that her husband had grabbed her hand during the marital dispute and that she "just pushed his hand off and just pushed away."

Prosecutors last week recommended to the court that Graham be sentenced to life or no less than 50 years in jail because of the seriousness of her crime, her lack of remorse and the chance she might commit another violent crime.

Michael Donahoe, Graham's federal defender, argued in legal documents filed late on Tuesday that prosecutors had violated their agreement with his client and asked the court to withdraw her guilty plea.

"Essentially the government is arguing that the court should reject the plea agreement by asking that defendant be sentenced as a first-degree offender," Donahoe wrote in the legal motion.

The plea deal dispensed with premeditation as an issue until prosecutors raised it in their sentencing recommendation to argue Graham should be imprisoned for life, Donahoe said in court documents.

There is "no way defendant can now be sentenced fairly given that the government has asked the court to vary upward to a life sentence based on premeditation," he said.

Donahoe also asked the judge to rule on a claim of prosecutorial misconduct by U.S. attorneys in the case.

Prosecutors could not immediately be reached for comment late on Tuesday.

(Editing by Eric M. Johnson and Ken Wills)