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Computer expert breaks down technology in Graham case

By Faith Smith, KECI Reporter, fcronin@keci.com
Published On: Dec 12 2013 10:44:27 PM MST
MISSOULA, Mont. -

A stunning turn of events in the Montana murder trial the whole nation is following.  22-year-old Jordan Linn Graham pleaded guilty to second degree murder after pushing her husband, 25-year-old Cody Lee Johnson, off a cliff in Glacier National Park a short eight days after they were married.

Prosecutors used a technological puzzle to indict Graham with evidence from email to text messages.  

NBC Montana talked with a computer expert Thursday, to help us understand this investigative tactic.

In this day and age, it's standard for investigators to pull cellphone, email and social network records and in this case it helped investigators paint a picture of what happened to Johnson and it uncovered holes in Graham's claims.

Johnson was reported missing on July 8.  Just less than two weeks later, law enforcement had search warrants for Graham's Facebook, twitter and email accounts.    

“Those records are not generally accessible to the public, but when you get into legal situations, particularly criminal investigations, they are accessible to the people in law enforcement,” says Ray Ford, a computer expert and professor of computer sciences at the University of Montana.  “People who don't know that get themselves in trouble.”

According to court records, during an interview with authorities, Graham claimed she received a text message from Johnson's phone, on the day of his disappearance that he was going for a drive with a friend out of town.

However when asked to produce the messages she told investigators she and Johnson "routinely deleted their text messages."

“If you're talking only to yourself and you don't say it out loud, you're safe,” says Ford.  “If it's a text message, somebody else sent it or got it, there are two ends so you can delete one end but that had no impact on the second end.”

Just five days after Johnson's disappearance, Graham told investigators she received an email saying "Johnson had left with three friends, went hiking, had fallen, was dead, and the search should be called off."

But on September 20, warrants allowing investigators to search Graham's email records showed Graham had created the fake email herself and sent the email from an IP address issued to Graham's parents’ house, where Graham had been living.  

“It takes work to correlate and cross-check and all of that, but this is what detectives do nowadays,” Ford tells us.  “Electronic tracking is a part of their life.”

Ford tells us there is a lesson everyone can take away from this trial.  Once you send a text or email, type a tweet or Facebook update, it’s online forever. And in the case of Graham, texts and email messages helped investigators make their case against her.