MIAMI (CBS4) – More than a decade after 4-year-old Rilya Wilson vanished, the murder trial for the little girl’s foster mother got underway Monday in a Miami-Dade County courtroom.
Geralyn Graham, 66, is charged with first degree murder, kidnapping, and multiple counts of child abuse with great bodily harm.
At the opening of the proceeding, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Marisa Tinkler-Mendez asked the members of the jury if they had read Sunday’s story in the Miami Herald about the case.
After giving their response, opening statements got underway.
Prosecutor Joshua Weintraub told the jury Graham smothered Wilson after months of abuse, dumped her body in a canal in southwest Miami-Dade and then elaborately covering the murder up until she confessed to fellow jail inmates.
It’s believed Wilson disappeared in late 2000 or early 2001, but the Department of Children and Families did not notice she was gone until April 2002. When the state discovered Rilya missing, Graham claimed a DCF worker had taken the girl away from her.
“A manhunt, a child hunt, started,” said Weintraub, “It started out in South Florida, it spread across Florida and across country.”
State investigators suspected Graham. Her live in lover, Pamela Graham, told investigators that Graham beat the child and locked her in a laundry room.
Jailhouse snitch Robin Lunceford is expected to testify that Geralyn Graham told her she killed Rilya because the little girl was evil.
“She referred to her as ‘it’ because the child didn’t want to wear an angel outfit, she referred to her as ‘it’ because she thought Rilya was a slut and a seductress,” Weintraub told the jury.
Graham and Lunceford are key to the state’s case.
Other witnesses are expected to testify that Graham would tie Rilya to her bed with flex cuffs and sometimes lock her in a dog cage.
Graham’s defense attorney, Scott Sakin, told the jury that Rilya’s body was never located in the canal where Graham allegedly dumped it.
“That body was not found because there was no body there,” said Sakin.
Sakin also focused his statement on the DCF worker who failed to regularly check on the girl and falsified reports for more than a year.
“Rilya was abandoned by the Department of Children and Families shortly after she was born, they didn’t do what they were supposed to do,” said Sakin who added that Rilya wasn’t a poster child for abuse, but rather one for neglect by DCF.
“It was the most devastating thing I’ve ever experienced and it still bothers me, even today,” said Congresswoman Frederica Wilson who attended the first day of the trial.
Rep. Wilson is not related to the little girl, but said she will never forget Rilya’s smiling face.
“I can not understand how a little baby girl, 4-years-old, can just vanish from the face of the earth, and no one, no one, has any answers,” Rep. Wilson said.
More than a decade later, many are hoping the answers they are looking for will come out in Graham’s criminal trial.
The Wilson case sparked a massive shake-up at the Department of Children and Families. Several employees were fired and policies were changed.
DCF’s track record has not been spotless since then, but Wilson said many improvements have been made.
“I can’t say we’re perfect. But I can say, we’re not as bad off as we were,” Rep. Wilson said Sunday, a day before the trial was set to begin.
If convicted, Graham faces life in prison.