Some cases will keep a lawyer awake at night, tragic honeymoon murder cases are one of these. Not because they’re laden with cutting edge legal theories or arguments over points sliced as finely as garlic. No, they fascinate because the facts imply a story better than anything one might find in prime-time during sweeps week. Such is the case that went to trial Monday in Federal District Court, Missoula, Montana – a tragic case dubbed, perhaps prematurely, as The Honeymoon Murder.
Cody Johnson, 27, and Jordan Linn Graham, 22, got married on June 29, 2013. All reports say Cody was love-smitten, thunderstruck, no-question-about-it, in love and that Graham was less so. Johnson and Graham went on a brief honeymoon, during which either he alone or they together visited Montana’s Glacier National Park. Some days after the solo or duo visit to the cliffs, Graham then led members of her family and a few of Johnson’s friends to a tragic scene, Johnson’s body, face down in water, at the bottom of a two hundred foot drop. And that’s it. That’s all one could have known prior to the subsequent FBI investigation.
The FBI is nothing if not thorough and since the tragic incident occurred on federal land, federal authorities took jurisdiction over the case. Their investigation disclosed the following: after the murder or the accident or tragic incident, the rattled though not necessarily grieving widow left the Park, returned home and sent several texts to her friend, Kimberly Martinez. The content of these messages referenced Graham’s ongoing upset over the very fact of her marriage. She texted that she was losing it, freaking out, etc. The next day Graham also sent several texts to her husband’s friends to provide herself with an alibi. In those texts Graham claimed that Johnson had left the day before, had gone off sightseeing with other friends and had yet to return. She expressed some concern about his unexplained overnight absence.
Days passed, parents worried. Where was their son? Where was Cody Johnson? Interested persons began to search for the missing Johnson.
Graham then created a dummy online account for a fictitious “Tony,” who texted Graham with the following message: Call off the search, Johnson is dead.
The next day Graham led members of her family and a few of Johnson’s friends to Johnson’s body lying face down in water at the bottom of the cliff. Asked how she knew this was the site where they’d find the deceased, Graham stated that she knew this was a place where Cody liked to hike.
The FBI then confronted Graham with CCTV footage that showed the married couple entering the park together on July 7. This footage forced Graham to rethink her alibi.
The FBI also produced evidence that some weeks before the honeymoon, Graham, ever troubled, ever tragic, had stated that she wanted to murder her mother and stepfather.
Graham then admitted that she had pushed her husband off the cliff. The circumstances surrounding that act are at the heart of the case.
The prosecution has charged Graham with first and second degree murder and for lying to federal authorities. The third charge should be a given and the separate murder charges, made in the alternative, reflect what the prosecution believes it can prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
Both charges are based largely on contested testimony that Graham allegedly gave in the first part of a long interview with FBI investigators. In that portion of the interview, unfortunately not recorded, the FBI contends that Graham admitted that she and her husband were arguing on the cliff, that the argument escalated and that although she could have walked away, her anger impelled her to push her husband off the cliff.
Andy Nelson, Graham’s lawyer from the Federal Public Defender’s office strenuously objects to the alleged statement, which was neither recorded nor corroborated. Nelson argues that the statement is inadmissible, because it’s not true and can’t be shown to have been made in the first place.
Graham’s defense admits that there was a fight, a struggle and that in that struggle Cody Johnson grabbed Graham’s arm, an assault to which she responded by pushing him away, that “push” or “shove” being sufficient to cause Johnson to fall off the cliff. In short Graham’s defense is self-defense, that honeymoon murder was not murder, but an unwanted, unsought for tragedy.
The trial will continue in Missoula this week. Federal District Judge Molloy, who still rides the circuit in Montana, will do what he can to speed it along, since he’s scheduled for another trial in Billings on Monday, December 15.
The case is moderately complex and Graham’s lies and evasions and knowledge, painfully revealed in bits and pieces as investigators closed in, will not help her defense. Every lawyer who’s experienced the difficulties in trying a case and then having to endure the wait, long or short, for the jury to return, knows that no one can predict what a jury will do. Nonetheless, Graham’s emails sent on the night of the incident, one of which described dance moves she was practicing for an upcoming party, as well the subsequent fabrication of the fictitious “Tony,” are pieces of a puzzle that portray the troubled mind of a young woman prone to cover-ups. The question the jury will have to answer is: What is it she’s covering up?
By Michael Hogan