MIAMI - More than a decade after foster child Rilya Wilson's disappearance shook up the state's child welfare system, the caregiver accused of killing the girl is finally set to go on trial in a highly circumstantial case hinging on jail inmates who say they heard the woman confess.
Jury selection is set to begin Monday in the trial of Geralyn Graham, which is expected to last about eight weeks. Graham, 66, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and has written letters to judges insisting she is innocent. She faces life in prison if convicted.
"I've never hurt a soul in my life," she said in one letter.
Rilya's body has never been found. Police have no witnesses to any killing and scant physical evidence. The crux of the case are alleged confessions Graham made to fellow jail inmates that she killed Rilya and buried her body near a lake.
"It is always problematic for the government when it has to build a case on jailhouse snitches," said Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University who has followed the case over the years. "In the end, the government may lose, particularly if Graham can present a reasonable alternative explanation for Rilya's disappearance."
Rilya was born Sept. 29, 1996, to a homeless cocaine addict. The girl's name was an acronym for "remember I love you always." She was taken into state custody when she was less than 2 months old.
The girl was last seen in 2001 living in a home shared by Geralyn Graham and Pamela Graham, who are not related. When it was discovered in 2002 that she was no longer living there, the Grahams claimed a Department of Children and Families worker had taken her for medical tests and never returned.
An investigation showed that a DCF caseworker, Deborah Muskelly, did not make required monthly visits to the Grahams' home for more than a year, even though she was filing reports and telling judges the girl was fine. Muskelly was eventually placed on five years' probation after pleading guilty to official misconduct for falsifying time sheets.
The case had far broader ramifications, leading to the resignation of then-DCF director Kathleen Kearney and launching of several reforms, including a new missing child tracking system linked to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. State lawmakers also made it illegal to falsify records of visits between child welfare workers and children in the agency's care.
In addition, legislators required DCF to contract out casework to private organizations, which experts said has contributed to a 28 percent drop in the overall number of kids in care since Rilya disappeared. The state pays those organizations around a half billion dollars a year.
"That was the event that drove privatization, for all practical purposes, and truly changed case management," said current DCF Secretary David Wilkins.
Caseworkers are now required to visit a child monthly and carry GPS units that stamp a date and location to make sure every child is accounted for. But it wasn't until last July that caseworkers were required to go beyond simply taking a picture at those visits and get critical updates about how the child is doing in school, whether they have any medical concerns or how they are faring socially in the home.
Former Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence, who chaired a task force that examined the agency's failings in Rilya's case, said the case did lead to important reforms, but problems remain.
In 2011, 10-year-old Nubia Barahona was found dead in her adoptive father's pickup truck. Subsequent investigation revealed that she was routinely abused and that signs were missed by her caseworkers. Her adopted parents have pleaded not guilty to murder charges and could get the death penalty if convicted.
"At heart here is people who didn't want to be bothered by the system. It is beyond a tragic situation," Lawrence said of both cases. "You still need compassion, decency and common sense."
In Graham's case, the star prosecution witness will be Robin Lunceford, a career criminal who had been sentenced to life behind bars before revealing Graham's purported confession. Lunceford's sentence was reduced to 10 years after she came forward. She is now scheduled for release in March 2014.
Lunceford told detectives that Graham, whom she had befriended, was talking to her from an adjacent cell and "broke down, said she couldn't take it anymore, that she had killed the little girl and buried her near her home." Lunceford said Graham told her she smothered Rilya with a pillow because the girl insisted on wearing a Cleopatra costume for Halloween rather than going as an angel. A second inmate also will testify that Graham confessed to the killing in another conversation.
Other prosecution evidence centers on allegations of abuse, including claims that Graham tied Rilya to a bed or locked her in a small laundry room as punishment for misbehavior. There were also reports by friends and acquaintances that the girl was frequently seen with bruises and scratches.
Michael Grieco, a former Miami-Dade County prosecutor now in private practice, said that testimony may help build a circumstantial case against Graham.
"The prosecutors should and will focus on the alleged history of abuse," he said.
Graham has a long history of fraud and other crimes. When she was arrested, police found that she has used 47 aliases and was carrying 10 different driver's licenses. That history was somehow missed by a DCF background check.
"Her whole life was a scam. We still don't know who she was, even after she was fingerprinted," said former Miami-Dade detective Gregory Scott, who retired in 2004 and was an early investigator in Rilya's case.
Pamela Graham, who remains charged with child neglect, has been cooperating with prosecutors and is expected to testify. In sworn statements, she has insisted she does not know what happened to Rilya.
Ultimately, according to Nova law professor Jarvis, the jury will have to be convinced that there's no other explanation for Rilya's death in order to convict Graham.
"Other than foul play, is there any reasonable explanation for the missing person's disappearance?" he said. "Assuming the answer is no, is there any reasonable doubt that someone other than the accused is the perpetrator?"
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