By Lori Grannis
MISSOULA, Montana (Reuters) - A Montana bride who shoved her husband off a cliff at Glacier National Park will not be allowed to withdraw her guilty plea, a federal judge ruled, paving the way for her to be sentenced on Thursday on a charge of second-degree murder.
Attorneys for the bride, 22-year-old Jordan Graham, had asked the judge to rescind her guilty plea from December, alleging that prosecutors were overreaching by seeking a life sentence and reneging on an agreement that they expected to involve less prison time.
But U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy declined the request, siding with federal prosecutors who wrote in documents submitted on Wednesday that the request was without merit.
Graham has admitted in court to pushing her husband of eight days off a cliff last July, saying that on the day he died the newlyweds had driven to the Montana park and walked down to an embankment on the cliff face, where she told him she wasn't happy and "wasn't sure we should be married."
Her husband, 25-year-old Cody Johnson, responded by grabbing her hand, she said.
"I told him to let go and I pushed his hand off," Graham said. "I just pushed his hand off and just pushed away."
In exchange for Graham pleading guilty to second-degree murder, prosecutors dropped a first-degree murder charge that carries a mandatory life sentence. The plea deal was struck just before closing arguments in Graham's high-profile murder trial before in Missoula, Montana.
But the sentence sought by prosecutors exceeded the prison term advised by a pre-sentencing investigative panel, which recommended 24 to 30 years. Defense sought a 10-year sentence.
Prosecutors have argued that a life sentence was warranted given the seriousness of the crime, Graham's lack of remorse and the "mental preparations" she made in advance of killing Johnson during a marital dispute while hiking a steep trail at Glacier.
Johnson told acquaintances on the morning of his death that Graham had planned a "surprise" for him that evening, Assistant U.S. Attorney for Montana Zeno Baucus wrote in legal documents.
Prosecutors described Graham as "extremely dangerous, predatory and an unrepentant murderer" who had "left a mother childless, upended a community and shown no respect for the law during this entire process."
Michael Donahoe, Graham's federal defender, argued that his client had no criminal record before the "tragic event," was unlikely to commit another crime and regretted she initially lied to investigators to cover up the killing.
"She is worthy of punishment and the shame that will no doubt accompany her for the remainder of her life," Donahoe wrote in court records. "Defendant has confided ... that a day does not go by that she doesn't think of her husband and what might have been."
The judge said in legal documents filed this week that government sentencing statistics show the length of imprisonment in Montana on a murder charge averaged about 17.5 years.
(Additional reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Peter Galloway and Gunna Dickson)