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  Comments (0) Total Thursday Apr. 17, 2014
Cyclical Crime Coverage
Like I was Sayin....
The national media left the state after Jordan Linn Graham changed her plea. Closing arguments were set to begin in her trial last week when the Kalispell woman acknowledged that she pushed her husband, Cody Johnson, off a cliff in Glacier National Park, killing him on July 7. Graham will be sentenced for second-degree murder in March and the same media will return then.

The murder, and bizarre circumstances that followed, received widespread coverage. Cable news stations called our office wanting a reporter, any reporter, to go on the air to discuss the case. Perhaps the bellwether of a crime story with a broad audience, People Magazine placed the couple on its front page under the headline: “NEWLYWED MURDER? 8-DAY MARRIAGE ENDS IN HORROR.”

I thought it strange to get so much attention. But this is Montana, and somehow sad cases like this spread beyond our borders at an abnormally high rate.

And with that attention, if I was sitting in Connecticut, and didn’t venture far from that area, I may assume this area dangerous, or at least a hotbed for unusual violence. For the record, that’s not the case.

Comparatively, Montana is a safe place. While the Federal Bureau of Investigation discourages using its stats to compile rankings, gleaning the number of violent crimes shows our state on the lower end, with 272.2 violent crimes per 100,000 people. That’s lower than Connecticut.

So it would be easy for Montanans to scoff at the amount of coverage this case, and previous trials, have received. Would a similar crime in, say, Great Smoky Mountains National Park receive the same kind of attention? Would Headline News’ Nancy Grace still provide wall-to-wall coverage, referring to Graham as “killer bride?” It’s hard to say. But interest in this trial was high from the beginning, which ended as strangely, and tragically, as it began.

Graham had maintained that Johnson’s fall was an accident, that she had simply pushed his hands away after he grabbed her arm. She said the proceeding cover-up, where she elaborately tried to deceive investigators, was out of fear. She thought no one would believe her story. And few did. And she shocked everyone when, just hours before the case would have been sent to the jury, she changed her plea and admitted to second-degree murder.

The 22-year-old stood before Federal Judge Donald Molloy and said, “I was there on the ledge with Cody, there was a heated argument and I had no regard for our surroundings and I pushed.” She shoved him in the back with both hands over a cliff.

After the judge accepted her plea, and after Graham was handcuffed and led away by U.S. marshals, Nancy Grace was on the air wondering if she was “set to walk free in a secret sweetheart deal.” She called it a “bombshell.” But the truth of the matter is Graham, despite having the first-degree murder charge dropped, could still face life in prison. Instead, the cable news show appeared like a blatant attempt to simply extend the story for a few more hours.

Following Graham’s plea, Johnson’s aunt, Celeste Watson, said, “The family is very thankful for the outcome. It’s been emotional.” The family handled themselves with grace throughout the week’s events.

Some of the media there for the trial told our reporter that they had arrived in Montana after covering another criminal trial in another state. Now they would simply pack up and head to the next one. It’s hard to blame the media for covering these things. If no one watched, or bought the magazines, they wouldn’t be here.

But during a case of this magnitude, it’s also easy to lose sight of those directly affected by its awfulness. And it’s at once hard not to be cynical about the cyclical coverage of cherry-picked crimes made fodder for a national audience.
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