State to retry Geralyn Graham for murder in Rilya Wilson case

Graham sentenced to 55 years in prison for kidnapping, child-abuse convictions

By Glenna Milberg - Reporter

MIAMI - The state attorney's office will re-try Geralyn Graham for the murder of missing 4-year-old foster child Rilya Wilson.

Prosecutors made the announcement in court Friday.

"Will you be able to find a jury in Miami-Dade County?" Circuit Court Judge Marisa Tinkler Mendez asked prosecutor Sally Weintraub.

"I have no idea," Weintraub responded.

In January, prosecutors lauded Graham's convictions for abusing and kidnapping Rilya as well as the 55 year prison sentence she received. On Friday, they hinted justice is incomplete without a conviction for murder.

"Obviously it's doable. The jury was very close to convicting her. In fact, they came back in three and a half hours and were ready to convict except for the one juror," Weintraub told Local 10's Glenna Milberg.

The first jury took three weeks to pick from a pool of 300 potential jurors for one of the most well-known child disappearance cases in South Florida history.

With no remains or physical evidence of Rilya, case of murder rested with the stories of jailhouse informants.

"None of the facts have changed; the witness list remains the same," said Weintraub.

"We have no doubt that when a jury hears this properly, Geralyn will be found not guilty because she is not guilty of the murder," said Scott Sakin, her attorney.

Initially, the retrial was set for April to meet a legal mandate for a speedy trial. At the request of Graham and her attorneys for more time, the judge granted a continuance until September. An exact date is not yet set.

In a phone interview, one of the 11 original jurors who voted for a murder conviction wondered whether prosecutors believe Graham will "confess and break and tell the world where the body is" during a retrial. The juror also asked what more prosecutors can achieve after spending the time and expense of a new trial since Graham is already convicted and in prison.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who ultimately signed off on the decision for retrial, released a statement about the decision Friday, saying in part: "We have spent a decade on a journey to secure true justice for Rilya and to ensure that her pain and suffering is never forgotten. We are relieved that through our efforts the person responsible for Rilya's death already faces a significant penalty. However, the murder of a child is such a terrible crime that we intend to continue to seek justice for Rilya Wilson."

The judge sentenced Graham, 68, to 30 years for kidnapping plus 25 years for aggravated child abuse. Two other abuse sentences — 25 years and five years, respectively — will be served concurrently for a total of 55 years behind bars. Prosecutors had sought the maximum of life plus 65 years.

Rilya vanished in December 2000 from the Miami-area home shared by Graham and her lover, Pamela Graham. Her disappearance wasn't noticed for 15 months, largely because a Department of Children and Families caseworker neglected to check on the girl in person as required.

The case led to the resignation of then-DCF director Kathleen Kearney and the passage of several reform laws, including a new missing-child-tracking system and the contracting out of foster child casework to private organizations. Lawmakers also made it illegal to falsify records of visits between caseworkers and foster children.

Rilya, whose name is an acronym for "remember I love you always," was the daughter of a crack-addicted woman. Rilya and two sisters were all put up for adoption, with the younger sibling also being cared for by the Grahams when Rilya disappeared.

By the time investigators got the case, any physical evidence that might have existed was long gone. Rilya's body has never been found, leading Graham's defense lawyers to suggest during the trial that the girl might have been sold and could still be alive. Prosecutors also had no eyewitnesses to any crime.

Graham insisted she was innocent and in brief remarks Tuesday she said eventually "the truth will come out."

"It hurt me to the depths of my soul for anyone to think I would do that to any child. I only tried to help her," Graham said. "I loved her too much to have ever done anything to her. Things have been greatly exaggerated."

Defense attorney Michael Matters said there will be appeals of the convictions and sentence. He praised the judge, nevertheless, for restraint in the sentence.

"My client was not convicted of murder, though the state would like the court to sentence my client and punish her as if she were," Matters said.

During the trial there was evidence of abuse, including a dog cage witnesses said Graham obtained to punish Rilya and testimony about the girl's lengthy confinement in a small laundry room. Pamela Graham testified that Geralyn Graham regularly tied Rilya to her bed using plastic restraints so she would not get up during the night.

The murder case hinged on testimony by three jailhouse snitches. The state's star witness, career criminal Robin Lunceford, said Graham told her behind bars that she smothered Rilya with a pillow and buried the body near water. Lunceford said Graham believed Rilya was evil and had to be put out of her misery.

A last straw was Rilya's insistence on wearing a Cleopatra mask instead of an angel costume for Halloween, according to Lunceford.

Graham consistently denied harming the girl, telling investigators and even national television shows that Rilya had been taken away by a DCF worker for mental tests and never returned. No evidence ever surfaced to back up that claim. Graham also told other stories to friends about Rilya's whereabouts, including purported trips to Disney World, New York and New Jersey.

Lunceford made a deal with prosecutors cutting her life sentence to 10 years in exchange for her testimony. She is currently scheduled for release in March 2014.

Pamela Graham was charged with child neglect but also will likely get no jail time in exchange for her testimony. Pamela Graham insisted she does not know what happened to Rilya, but she didn't admit to investigators until 2004 that there were numerous lies surrounding the girl's disappearance.

Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.