Trial begins in Montana newlywed killing case
MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — The murder trial of a Montana woman accused of pushing her new husband to his death began with the jury seeing a smiling Cody Johnson, looking dapper in a blue shirt and striped tie.
That photograph was replaced minutes later with one of Johnson’s body lying face-down in a pool of water at the bottom of a cliff in Glacier National Park.
There were no witnesses to what happened the night of July 7, when Johnson and Jordan Graham argued over their 8-day-old marriage at a popular spot in the park, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kris McLean told jurors Monday.
“There were only two people on this cliff when the defendant pushed Cody Johnson off,” McLean said.
But by using the testimony of friends and relatives, and the text messages sent by Graham before and after Johnson’s death, prosecutors say they will prove during the trial that Graham, 22, intentionally pushed Johnson from the ledge then lied to family, friends and the police about his death.
Graham has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder, second-degree murder and making a false statement to authorities.
Andy Nelson, Graham’s federal public defender, said Johnson’s death was a tragic accident. She had finally worked up the nerve to talk to Johnson about her grave doubts about their marriage, when he grabbed her during a heated argument and she pushed him to remove his hand.
“Arguing on this small ledge was like arguing in a phone booth,” Nelson said. “Jordan lied because she was afraid no one would ever let her explain what happened on that ledge.”
Nelson described Graham as a naive, immature and shy woman who deals better with the children she watched over as a nanny than with most adults. She was awkward around Johnson’s friends, and she sensed they didn’t like her, so she avoided them, the lawyer said.
They were married June 29, about two years after they started dating. Johnson’s friend, Jennifer Toren, said he was crazy about Graham.
“He was willing to do anything for her,” Toren said.
But almost immediately, Graham started having “the wedding blues,” McLean said.
Prosecutors presented jurors with dozens of text messages between Graham and her friend from church, Kimberly Martinez, that documented how Graham’s nervous excitement at the prospect of the wedding turned into despair over the week that followed.
Graham wrote in one text the day after the wedding that she was “completely second guessing everything right now.” The day after that, she wrote that she couldn’t pull herself together. A third message said she wished somebody would have asked her if the marriage was what she wanted, and that all she wanted was to be herself again.
“Something was wrong,” Martinez told the jury. “I couldn’t tell if she was unhappy or something happened.”
McLean said the couple took their argument to the park and descended below a retaining wall along the roadway to the ledge. There, Graham pushed Johnson in the back with both hands and he fell face-first over the cliff, McLean said.
She then drove home without seeking help and sent text messages to friends that planted stories about Johnson’s disappearance and talked about her dance moves for an upcoming party, the prosecutor said.
She lied to his friends and her own family about his disappearance. She showed authorities a fabricated email from a person named “Tony” that said Johnson was dead and they should call off the search. The next day, she led authorities to his body, saying that she knew he liked to hike in that spot with his buddies, McLean said.
Graham’s attorney said she was running from the reality of the situation that she had found herself in. In her naivete, she came up with a ridiculous, implausible story to deflect attention from herself.
“Jordan did not want to report this accident because she was afraid,” Nelson said.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy said he hoped to get the trial to the jury this week because he has another trial scheduled to start next Monday in Billings.
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