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Case of bride who pushed groom off cliff goes to trial

The men and women who will decide if Jordan Linn Graham had murder in her heart when she pushed her new husband Cody Johnson off a 200-foot cliff — eight days after she walked down the aisle with tears in her eyes — were selected and heard opening statements in a Montana courtroom on Monday.

Prosecutors said Johnson was enthralled with his new wife, while Graham was having doubts about their marriage just a week after the wedding.

The prosecutors presented the newly selected jurors with text messages from Graham and a friend, which indicated Graham shifted from excitement about her nuptials to despondency about actually being married. 

Federal public defender Andrew Nelson said that Graham was having doubts about the relationship, but that Johnson’s fall from the cliff was an accident.

But the six women and eight men may never hear some of the most shocking claims in the case: that Graham talked about killing her own mother and stepfather weeks before Johnson's death, and that a black cloth purported to be a blindfold was found near the victim's body.

On the eve of the trial, a federal judge ruled the 22-year-old's alleged comments would be "highly prejudicial" and barred prosecutors from using them. He suggested he is unlikely to let the government discuss the cloth, saying it could be "misleading."

Graham's trial is expected to last all week and feature testimony from dozens of witnesses who will talk about her relationship with Johnson, 25, and her behavior when he suddenly vanished the night of July 7 after a trip to the Dairy Queen.

Cody Johnson jgfuneralhome.com

The most crucial words, however, will come from the bride: the text message she sent a friend expressing doubt about her days-old marriage, the stories she made up to explain her groom's disappearance, and her eventual confession about the deadly end to an argument in Glacier National Park.

"And then we were arguing some more and he went to grab my arm and my jacket and I said 'No,'" Graham told an FBI agent, according to court documents.

"I said I am not going to let this happen to me, I am going to defend myself. So I kinda said 'Let go' and I pushed, and he went over."

"It was just kind of a quick thinking, like 'Get off me!'" she told the agent, but also admitted under questioning that Johnson let go of her arm before she gave him a two-handed shove.

The couple had dated for about two years before getting married, but court documents describe them as a mismatch.

Graham was "naive, immature, socially inept, shy, quiet," more comfortable with her young charges at the day-care where she worked than with adults, her lawyer said. She was deeply religious and did not believe in premarital sex.

Johnson, on the other hand, did not attend church and spent his free time with friends, drinking beer, playing softball and driving cars. "Cody loved to drive fast, even described as recklessly, and accumulated many traffic tickets in his short life, including one for driving 120 mph in a 70 mph zone," the defense noted in a brief.

As the romance blossomed, Johnson stopped carousing and started going to a Baptist church with his girlfriend, the defense said. When they got married in a park in their hometown of Kalispell, many church members were among the 90 guests.

Her lawyer noted that the newlyweds locked eyes during the ceremony and smiled nervously at each other. Graham commissioned a song for their first dance, but some witnesses thought she also "cried too much walking down the aisle and appeared not want to be there," court papers say.

The honeymoon was one night long. The marriage didn't last much longer.

Jury selection starts Monday in the trial of Jordan Linn Graham, seen here leaving court in October. Michael Gallacher / Missoulian

On his last day alive, Johnson told friends that Graham had a "surprise" planned for him later that day, prosecutors said. Just before 9 p.m., she texted a friend in whom she had confided her doubts and said she was about to talk to Johnson.

"I'll pray for you guys," the friend texted Graham.

"But dead serious if u don't hear from me at all again tonight, something happened," Graham replied.

Less than a half-hour later, security cameras captured the couple driving into the park. They parked in an area called "The Loop" and hiked to what prosecutors called a "dangerously steep area below the road."

The defense doesn't dispute that Graham and Johnson struggled, but portrays him as the instigator. He was the one who insisted they go to the park, climbed down to the narrow ledge, convinced his wife to join him and then got physical.

"Jordan reacted instinctively and pushed him off. Cody lost his balance and went off the ledge," her lawyers wrote in documents.

After Johnson had fallen the equivalent of 15 stories, Graham got back in the car and drove toward home.

"She did not call for help. She did not stop and seek assistance. Instead, approximately one hour and forty minutes after entering Glacier Park, the Defendant began to exchange text messages with her friends," prosecutors wrote.

"In text messages to one friend, the Defendant began to plant one of multiple stories the Defendant would advance over the next few days concerning Mr. Johnson’s disappearance. In text messages to another friend, the Defendant discussed her dance moves."

Authorities say Graham concocted a series of implausible stories about the disappearance of her husband, who was reported missing by his parents when he did not show up for work. Nelson argued Monday that Graham originally lied because she was afraid nobody would believe her.

She claimed he went out after getting a mysterious phone call and texted her that he was going for a drive with a friend. She allegedly created a phony email account and sent a message from someone named "Tony" that said Johnson had fallen while hiking and was dead.

On July 11, she led a search party to The Loop, climbed down below the road and announced she had found a body. She said she knew where to look because his "car buddies" always took him there.

The bizarre explanations ended five days later when, during a long interview session without an attorney, Graham told the FBI she was at the park and had pushed Johnson. She was later charged with first-degree murder and making false statements. She pleaded not guilty.

Her lawyer suggested in court papers, though, that while she should not be convicted of murder, she is racked with guilt.

"People are expected to testify she acted as if nothing happened. Maybe that was what Jordan was trying to convince herself," he wrote.

"In a statement Jordan made to the FBI she said she felt 100% responsible for his death. She pushed last so it’s her fault. "

NBC News' Jim Lichtenstein contributed to this report.