Deny Montana bride's bid to rescind guilty plea in murder: prosecutors

Wed Mar 26, 2014 7:49pm EDT

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(Reuters) - A Montana bride's effort to withdraw her guilty plea to second-degree murder for shoving her husband off a cliff at Glacier National Park lacks merit and should be denied, prosecutors argued in federal court papers submitted on Wednesday.

The filing comes a day after attorneys for 22-year-old Jordan Graham asked a federal judge to rescind her guilty plea from December, alleging prosecutors are overreaching by seeking a life sentence and reneging on an agreement that they expected to involve less time in prison.

Graham is to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy at a hearing scheduled for Thursday in Missoula, Montana.

In exchange for Graham pleading guilty to second-degree murder in the July death of her husband of eight days, Cody Johnson, prosecutors dropped a first-degree murder charge, which alleges premeditation and carries a mandatory life sentence.

The dispute over the plea deal, which was struck just before closing arguments in Graham's murder trial, stems from prosecutors' recommendation the former nanny be imprisoned for life or at least 50 years.

Federal prosecutors wrote in documents filed on Wednesday the request to withdraw the plea was without merit.

"Having reviewed (possible sentences), the defendant has now changed her mind on the eve of sentencing," stated Assistant U.S. Attorney for Montana Kris Mclean. "The only way she can delay sentencing is to allege and prove that the government somehow breached its agreement."

The sentence sought by prosecutors exceeded the prison term advised by a pre-sentencing investigative panel, which recommended 24 to 30 years.

Prosecutors have argued 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 deliberately killing Johnson during a dispute while hiking a steep trail at Glacier.

After striking the plea deal, Graham admitted her guilt to Molloy, saying her husband grabbed her hand during the altercation and that she "just pushed his hand off and just pushed away."

Graham's attorneys sought 10 years in prison for Graham, arguing that was fair because she had no criminal record before the "tragic event" and regretted she initially lied to investigators to cover up the crime.

Michael Donahoe, Graham's federal defender, said in court filings his client should be allowed to withdraw her guilty plea because prosecutors had acted in bad faith by trying to establish premeditation in their sentencing recommendation to the judge to justify a life term.

(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Richard Chang)

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