The caretaker of foster child Rilya Wilson grew to hate the 4-year-old because of defiant behavior, finally smothering the girl with a pillow in 2000 and covering up the slaying with a web of lies, a Florida prosecutor told a jury Tuesday.
Assistant State Attorney Joshua Weintraub said in closing arguments that the law permits the jury to find 67-year-old Geralyn Graham guilty of first-degree murder even though Rilya's body was never found. Graham, who insists she is innocent, faces life in prison if convicted.
"There is no requirement that a body be presented, there is no body in this case because the defendant made damn sure the body would never be recovered," said Weintraub.
Evidence and testimony during the eight-week trial showed that Graham abused Rilya, even confining the girl in a dog cage or keeping her hidden in a laundry room for hours, Weintraub said. It was all because Rilya wouldn't do exactly as Graham ordered, the prosecutor said.
"It happened because of this woman's frustration and hatred of Rilya," Weintraub said. "This woman hated Rilya Wilson for a variety of reasons."
Defense attorney Michael Matters, however, said there was little testimony about hatred or maliciousness toward Rilya on the part of Graham. Jurors ought to focus on what evidence the state did not have, he said.
"Lack of physical evidence. Lack of a body. Lack of any physical discovery of remains. Lack of a motive for killing her," Matters said. "You should use your common sense."
Matters added that investigators should have focused on whether state child welfare workers might have sold Rilya to a family, possibly in another country, rather than zeroing in on a possible murder.
"There has not been any reliable or credible proof that Rilya is dead," Matters said.
Jurors are likely to begin deliberations Wednesday, after the defense finishes its closing arguments and prosecutors have a chance at rebuttal argument.
Rilya's disappearance went unnoticed by the state Department of Children and Families for about 15 months, largely because a caseworker failed to check on the girl in person. The shocking discovery that she had disappeared led to a shake-up at the agency, including high-level resignations, and passage of reforms including better tracking of foster children.
The state's case rests heavily on the testimony of three jailhouse informants who claim that Graham implicated herself behind bars when she was in jail on a fraud charge.
The star witness, career criminal Robin Lunceford, said Graham told her she smothered Rilya with a pillow in December 2000 and disposed of the body near water.
Lunceford said Graham considered the child evil and referred to the girl as "it." One of the last straws was Rilya's insistence on wearing a Cleopatra mask on Halloween rather than an angel costume, Lunceford testified.
"I submit to you this case is extremely powerful, this case is chock full of information that came directly from the horse's mouth," Weintraub said.
The defense has raised questions about Lunceford's motivation, noting that she got a life prison sentence reduced to 10 years in exchange for her testimony.
Weintraub told jurors that Graham made up a series of stories for friends who noticed Rilya was no longer at her home, including a claim that an unidentified DCF worker had taken the girl for mental tests and never returned her. At other times, she told friends Rilya was on trips to Disney World, New York or New Jersey. She also told people Rilya had severe behavioral problems, including spreading feces around the house, trying to hurt her younger sister and touching men's private parts.
Investigators had no evidence to back up Graham's stories or the claims of Rilya's bad behavior.
"Lies, deceit and cover-up," the prosecutor said. "It's all lies to distract them from the horrible truth of what happened."
Sitting in the courtroom Tuesday was Pamela Kendrick, who was Rilya's foster parent until DCF removed the girl in April 2000 at Graham's insistence. Weintraub said witnesses from those days remember a happy little girl who loved dolls and was doing well in preschool.
Those who knew her during Graham's time painted a far different picture.
"Rilya was ostracized. Rilya was isolated," Weintraub said. "She wasn't smiling. She wasn't laughing. This was a sad little girl."