Courts

Jury deadlocks on murder charge; convicts on abuse, kidnapping in Rilya’s case

 

Eleven of 12 jurors wanted to convict former caretaker Geralyn Graham of the foster child’s murder.

dovalle@MiamiHerald.com

Geralyn Graham, accused of smothering her chubby-cheeked foster child with a pillow, escaped a murder conviction Friday — by one juror’s vote.

But she will not escape punishment.

All 12 Miami-Dade jurors, emotionally exhausted by two days of deliberations, agreed that Graham abused and kidnapped 4-year-old foster child Rilya Wilson.

She faces up to life in prison. Sentencing date: Feb. 12.

In all likelihood, Graham, 67, now convicted of aggravated child abuse and kidnapping, will die in prison. And little Rilya’s body has yet to be found, a lingering and tragic chapter in the history of Florida’s often-embattled child welfare agency.

“There are many ways to achieve justice, and the fact that they didn’t come back on a murder charge doesn’t mean that justice was not done for Rilya Wilson,” said Miami-Dade prosecutor Joshua Weintraub. “But we can ensure that this woman never leaves the prison system, and that ensures justice.”

Nevertheless, three jurors — who asked not to be identified — interviewed by The Miami Herald came away frustrated that one lone hold-out refused to budge from her position that there was “no firm” evidence that Graham killed Rilya.

Graham was the last person with the child, and her multiple lies about what happened to Rilya helped sway one juror toward a guilty conviction for murder.

“It was very intense,’’ she said, tearfully. “We did the best we could but we cannot force someone. It’s against the rules. It’s very sad. Nobody cared about this kid from day one.”

Another juror said the group carefully reviewed the testimony. The holdout “couldn’t see the evidence as the rest of us did,” he said.

And, a third: “We were heartbroken. We were devastated because 11 of us knew she was guilty.”

The holdout juror could not be reached for comment. Defense attorney Michael Matters applauded the holdout “for voting with her conscience.

“That person should receive a medal,” he said.

As for Graham, “She was very stoic,” Matters said. “She knows that at the sentencing, there is a good likelihood that she’ll get maxed out.”

Rilya, born to a crack-addicted mother, was placed in Graham’s Kendall home in early 2000 by the Florida Department of Children and Families.

It was not until April 2002 that a caseworker discovered that the girl was no longer there.

Graham insisted that an unknown DCF employee — a tall light-skinned woman with a Caribbean accent — whisked the child away for a mental health evaluation, never to return.

In the ensuing upheaval at the agency, investigators discovered that Rilya’s caseworker, Deborah Muskelly, had failed to monitor the child. She later was convicted of fraud related to her DCF work.

Soon after, Graham was arrested and in February 2003, jurors convicted her of fraud for using a friend’s ID to buy an SUV. Less than a year later, based on incriminating statements from her domestic partner, Graham was charged with aggravated child abuse of Rilya.

Her partner, Pamela Graham, no relation, agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge of child neglect.

Getting a conviction on the charges was never an easy task. With no confession from Graham, no eyewitnesses, no forensic evidence and no body, prosecutors had to weave a circumstantial case.

Pamela Graham, a meek shell of a woman, testified at trial that Geralyn Graham would bind the child’s hands to the bed railing with plastic “flex cuffs” and confine Rilya in a laundry room for hours on end.

A friend of the pair told police that Graham borrowed a dog cage to put Rilya in when she misbehaved, although no could say they saw the child in there as punishment.

Acquaintances also testified that Graham gave conflicting stories about what happened to the girl — to some, she claimed the girl was on a road trip with a “Spanish lady” friend.

But the murder charge hinged on the word of a brash and eccentric inmate, Robin Lunceford, who told detectives that Graham gave her a detailed, teary confession while in jail.

During four days of testimony, Lunceford told jurors that Graham had a festering hatred for the child, and smothered Rilya with a pillow, then buried the body near a body of water in South Miami-Dade.

Defense attorney’s ripped into Lunceford’s credibility, especially because she got a life sentence for armed robbery reduced to 10 years in prison.

But she also knew intimate details available to only investigators, including the “final straw” episode in which Graham grew angry because Rilya wanted to dress as Cleopatra, not an angel, for Halloween.

Two other jailhouse inmates also testified that Graham gave damning admissions while behind bars.

“Eleven of us believed them,” one juror said.

After an eight-week trial that featured dozens of witnesses, jurors deliberated more than 12 hours over two days — and they repeatedly sent notes to the judge to say they were deadlocked by one vote.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Marisa Tinkler Mendez declared a mistrial on the murder count.

As the verdicts were read on the other charges, jurors were visibly upset, some crying, others said with their arms folded.

The kidnapping charge is punishable by life in prison, while the two counts of aggravated child abuse carry a sentence of up to 30 years. Graham also was convicted of a lesser child abuse count for the dog cage punishment.

The State Attorney’s Office now must decide whether to re-try Graham on the murder charge, although prosecutors could decide against it if she receives a lengthy sentence on the other charges.

“Any time you prosecute a no-body case, it’s an uphill battle,” said retired Miami-Dade Detective Greg Smith, who testified in the case.

“But Geralyn Graham is the epitome of evil. What she put that child through was unconscionable, and she should never allowed to walk free again.”

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