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Montana bride accused in husband's cliff death to be sentenced

By Laura Zuckerman

(Reuters) - A Montana bride who shoved her husband of eight days off a cliff at Glacier National Park is due to be sentenced on Thursday, and a judge was expected to rule on a defense motion to withdraw her guilty plea to a second-degree murder charge.

Attorneys for 22-year-old Jordan Graham on Tuesday 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 prison time.

Federal prosecutors wrote in documents submitted on Wednesday that Graham's request to withdraw her plea was without merit and should be denied.

In exchange for Graham pleading guilty to second-degree murder in the July 7 death of her husband of eight days, 25-year-old Cody Johnson, prosecutors dropped a first-degree murder charge, which alleges premeditation and carries a mandatory life sentence.

The plea deal that sparked the latest round of legal wrangling in the high-profile case was struck just before closing arguments in Graham's murder trial before U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula, Montana.

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 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 marital 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."

Johnson told acquaintances 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, of Kalispell, 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 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 crime.

"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.

(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Eric M. Johnson and Lisa Shumaker)

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