MIAMI (AP) — After a two-month trial, jurors on Thursday began deliberating the fate of Geralyn Graham, who is accused of abusing and killing 4-year-old foster child Rilya Wilson more than a decade ago.
Jurors went behind closed doors Thursday after receiving instructions from Circuit Judge Marisa Tinkler Mendez. Graham, 67, faces life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder. She also is charged with kidnapping and child abuse.
In addition, the jury could opt for a less severe manslaughter charge rather than murder.
“All of us are depending on you to make a wise and legal decision in this matter,” the judge told jurors.
Prosecutors said Graham, who was Rilya’s caretaker, smothered the girl with a pillow in December 2000 and disposed of her body, which has never been found. Key to the case is a purported jailhouse confession by Graham to career criminal Robin Lunceford, who said Graham told her she did it because Rilya was evil and demonic.
Before that, trial testimony showed Rilya was kept in a dog cage, tied to her bed with plastic restraints and forced for long periods to stay in a small laundry room as punishment for disobedience.
“She was being brutalized. She was being punished to the extreme,” Assistant State Attorney Michael Matters said in closing arguments.
Rilya’s disappearance went unnoticed by state officials for 15 months, triggering high-level resignations at the Department of Children and Families and leading to passage of several reform laws, such as better tracking of foster children. A caseworker who failed to check up on Rilya in person during all those months eventually pleaded guilty to official misconduct charges for falsifying time sheets.
Graham’s defense raised the possibility Rilya might have been sold and could still be alive. They questioned the credibility of Lunceford — whose life sentence was cut to 10 years in exchange for her testimony — and the fact that no physical evidence exists showing a crime was committed.
“There’s no evidence of it because my client never committed murder,” said defense attorney Michael Matters.
Two other prison inmates also testified that Graham implicated herself in Rilya’s killing. Friends and acquaintances said Graham told various stories about the girl’s disappearance, such as trips to Disney World and New York, and she told investigators the girl had been taken for mental tests by a state caseworker and never returned.
Authorities found no evidence to back up those explanations.
Before jurors began deliberations, three alternates were sent home but instructed by the judge not to talk to the media or read news accounts of the case until a verdict in the high-profile case is reached.