MISSOULA — Does pushing your husband off a cliff to his death warrant serving life in prison? Or 10 years? Or somewhere in between?
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy must decide what punishment is fitting for Jordan Graham, who pushed her husband off a cliff in Glacier National Park last summer after only eight days of marriage.
After both sides had rested their case in a December trial, 22-year-old Graham pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of 25-year-old Cody Johnson before the jury could enter into deliberations.
The case is relatively unusual for federal court, since accusations of murder are usually tried and sentenced in county courtrooms, but Graham pushed Johnson on federal land, said Jordan Gross, an associate professor of law at the University of Montana who teaches criminal law and criminal procedure.
Federal sentencing guidelines are vague on what’s required for second-degree murder. Hence the 90-year difference in sentences the defense and prosecution are asking Molloy to hand down, Gross said.
Graham was charged with first-degree murder, a lesser included charge of second-degree murder and making false statements to law enforcement. For first-degree murder, prosecutors must prove there was intent on the defendant’s part, where intent is not required for a second-degree murder conviction.
Although Graham pleaded guilty, prosecutors rehashed in their sentencing memorandum that Johnson was found without his wedding ring or car keys and hinted at the possibility that Graham had indeed intended to kill her new husband.
Graham’s defense team contends that the circumstances of the evening were a recipe for disaster and that the incident was more akin to an accident.
“She pleaded guilty, but that doesn’t mean that the prosecution can’t come in and argue her sentence up to life because that’s what the statute says,” Gross explained. Federal statutes also don’t stipulate a required minimum sentence.
The benefit of pleading guilty before the jury could return a verdict is that it shows Graham accepts responsibility for her actions, Gross said.
“There are shades of acceptance of responsibility,” though, Gross said, adding that in Graham’s case, she didn’t spare Johnson’s family the anguish of taking the stand and reliving their pain during a trial.
Letters from family and friends in support of Graham, and letters filed on behalf of the prosecution, also will play a role in Molloy’s determination – and give insight from those who know Graham and Johnson best.
Brad Blasdel, who knew Graham for several years through her family, wrote that she was quiet and shy on the surface but cold and calculating underneath and showed no emotion about Johnson’s death.
“Not once did I see any sign of remorse in Jordan for killing Cody,” he wrote, asking Molloy to consider the woman’s callousness during sentencing.
“She took Cody’s life with premeditation and malice; now she must give hers,” he continued.
Cyndi Blasdel called Graham a “quiet instigator” who frequently encouraged bad behavior in others from the time she was a child.
After Graham and Johnson’s engagement, Graham’s behavior became increasingly erratic, to the point of murder, Blasdel said.
“Jordan Graham knew what she did was wrong and knew the consequences. She needs to be held accountable. She is not a non-violent offender. Those of us who know her are afraid and some of us still sleep with the lights on,” she wrote.
Johnson’s neighbor, Scott Hemmelman, wrote in his letter that effects of the murder have rippled throughout the Kalispell community.
“What was taken from this world in a heinous malicious act was more than a life. It took a friend too (sic) all,” Hemmelman wrote.
“We ask the court to please ensure that a mother, family, friends and society do not have to endure this pain ever again and hand down the maximum sentence of life,” he concluded.
People who wrote letters on Graham’s behalf, though, urged Molloy to be lenient to the quiet, hardworking woman who they say diligently attended church and served as a mentor to other young women.
Graham’s stepfather, Steven Rutledge, wrote that he feels Johnson’s death was a terrible accident.
“Why she decided to tell stories about the true events are unknown and unfortunate, but not a reason for a long prison term,” he wrote.
Graham is a quiet churchgoer who cares deeply about others, he wrote. “I ask you to grant Jordan some leniency, and a chance at living her life as a young Christian woman.”
If Molloy is lenient, Graham has the potential to become a contributing member of society, her mother Lindele Rutledge wrote.
Her daughter has shown remorse repeatedly in letters, through phone conversations and during visitation times, Rutledge wrote. “She has never been in trouble with the law. Her only record is a couple of speeding tickets. By showing her leniency she could get a college education and become a better and useful member of society.”
While the letter writers and each side’s lawyers are trying to paint Graham in a specific light, the presentence investigation report describes the young woman overall.
“There’s a neutral in there – and that’s the probation officer who actually goes in and does a thorough and independent investigation,” Gross said.
To compile the report, a probation officer conducts interviews about and research into Graham’s past, from her childhood to present day, to provide information that can shed light on any mental or physical impairment, whether she’s likely to re-offend and if she ever was involved in uncharged criminal conduct.
Graham also likely will address Molloy during Thursday’s hearing in U.S. District Court in Missoula.
It will be her opportunity to interact with Molloy outside of the case facts, said Paul Ryan, who has practiced law in Missoula for 20 years.
Her comments to the judge will allow her to personally explain why she pushed Johnson and convey if she truly accepts responsibility for her actions, Ryan said.
Johnson’s mother, Sherry Johnson, as well as several other family members, will make comments during the sentencing hearing too.
“They’re usually the most emotional and they can certainly carry a lot of weight with the judge,” Ryan said.
What Johnson’s family feels is appropriate punishment also will factor into the decision, as will the impact to the victim, he said.
“In this case, it was fatal. There can’t be a greater impact on a person than that,” he added.
After taking all the information into consideration, Molloy will have to decide what to weigh most heavily in his decision and what comments and information are most credible to discern if the murder was unusual behavior for Graham or if she poses a risk to society.
“The bottom line is she admitted and pled guilty to a significant crime, so you’ve got to start with that,” Ryan said.
After Molloy hands down a sentence, the Board of Prisons will decide to which federal penitentiary Graham will be assigned. There are no federal prisons in Montana.