The foster parent of 4-year-old Rilya Wilson abused the girl for months before finally smothering her, and then lied to child welfare workers who failed to discover the girl had been missing for more than a year, a prosecutor said Monday.
Rilya's case led to new laws and a massive shakeup at Florida's child welfare agency after she vanished in 2000. Authorities long suspected caretaker Geralyn Graham in Rilya's disappearance, but didn't charge her until 2005 when prosecutors said she confessed to an inmate while serving time on an unrelated fraud case.
Graham is on trial for first-degree murder, kidnapping and child abuse. She faces life in prison if convicted.
Graham's attorney raised the possibility that Rilya could still be alive because her body has not been found. Attorney Scott Sakin suggested Rilya could've been relocated to a new home and lost in a system that has a history of caseworker incompetence. Sakin also reminded jurors that jailhouse snitches have much to gain for helping out prosecutors.
"Is there any evidence at all that this child is dead?" Sakin said. "Where is the body? We don't have to prove that she's alive. They have to prove that this child is dead."
Prosecutors said Graham confessed to killing Rilya, who would be 16 now, because she believed the girl was evil and possessed by demons. Other witnesses will testify that Graham repeatedly lied about the girl's whereabouts after she disappeared, Assistant State Attorney Joshua Weintraub said.
"She snuffed the life out of this child," said Weintraub, holding a large photo of the smiling 4-year-old. He added that Rilya was frequently punished harshly, including being kept in a dog cage and tied to a bed with plastic restraints.
"Rilya was always in timeout. Always being punished," Weintraub said.
Graham, 66, uses a walker to move around in court. She has long insisted she is innocent and claimed a Department of Children and Familes worker took Rilya from her Miami-area home one day and never returned the girl.
Rilya and a younger sister were both given over to state care because their drug-addicted, frequently homeless mother could not care for them. Rilya's name is an acronym for "remember I love you always" given by her birth mother.
The girl's disappearance led to a shakeup at DCF, including several high-level resignations, when it was discovered that a caseworker was falsifying reports about the girl's well-being and that supervisors took little action. The case also led to a new missing child tracking system in Florida, approval of a privatized system of child casework and tougher laws against falsifying child welfare reports.
Many of those social services officials are expected to testify. But the key to the case, both sides agree, is the testimony of career criminal Robin Lunceford, who befriended Graham in jail. Lunceford claims that Graham, referring to Rilya as "it," told her she smothered the girl with a pillow and buried the remains near water "because water represented peace," Weintraub told jurors. Another inmate also claims that Graham confessed at a different time.
Weintraub said Lunceford was reluctant to snitch but "couldn't stomach" knowing about the death of a child.
"If you tell me you killed an innocent child, I'm going to snitch, and I'm going to snitch proud. Because it's different," Weintraub quoted Lunceford as telling detectives.
Lunceford had been facing a life sentence as a repeat offender but has had her sentence reduced to 10 years because of her cooperation, court records show. With time off for good behavior, she could be released by the end of December, Sakin pointed out.
"She's a rat," Sakin said. "Robin Lunceford would do anything, anything, to get out of prison."
Graham also has a checkered past, including a history of convictions for fraud. Authorities said she has used 47 different aliases and had 10 different driver's licenses when she was arrested. Weintraub said Graham forged documents falsely claiming she was Rilya's grandmother in order to collect state benefits — even after police believed the girl was dead.
The grandmother's claim, he said, was "just the first of many, many lies that were woven together in this case to keep the police at bay for many years."
Graham also told friends who questioned the girl's whereabouts that she was on trips to New York, New Jersey and Disney World but would return.
The trial is expected to last about five weeks. U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, who was deeply involved in the case as a state legislator, attended the start. The Democratic congresswoman is not related to Rilya.