MIAMI (AP) — A former caretaker was convicted Friday of child abuse and kidnapping in a 4-year-old foster child’s disappearance more than a decade ago, but a mistrial was declared on a murder charge after jurors were narrowly unable to agree.
The 12-person jury said early on they were split 11-1 on whether 67-year-old Geralyn Graham killed Rilya Wilson and could not persuade the holdout over two days of deliberations. The murder charge carried a potential life sentence, while the charges on which Graham was convicted carry potential sentences of at least 30 years behind bars.
Assistant State Attorney Joshua Weintraub said the state would not try Graham a second time for first-degree murder. Graham has long maintained her innocence. Weintraub said the other convictions would likely keep Graham locked up for life even without the murder conviction.
“The fact that they didn’t come back on a murder charge doesn’t mean that justice was not done for Rilya Wilson,” Weintraub told reporters afterward.
Circuit Judge Marisa Tinkler Mendez set sentencing for Feb. 12. Graham’s attorneys said they planned an appeal and praised the lone juror who held out.
Rilya vanished in late 2000 from Graham’s home but her disappearance was not discovered for 15 months. That lapse led to high-level resignations at the state Department of Children and Families and passage of child welfare reform laws.
Rilya’s body has never been found. Prosecutors relied heavily on testimony by jailhouse informants who said Graham confessed to them behind bars.
The state’s star witness, career criminal Robin Lunceford, testified that Graham told her she believed Rilya was evil and possessed by demons, so Graham smothered the girl with a pillow and buried her near a body of water. Graham met Lunceford in jail while awaiting trial on fraud charges.
Authorities long suspected caretaker Graham in Rilya’s disappearance, but didn’t charge her until 2005. The case languished because of extended legal wrangling and because Lunceford backed out of testifying before finally relenting after negotiating a plea deal that cut her life sentence to 10 years.
The girl’s disappearance led to resignations at DCF, including several high-level positions, when it was discovered that a caseworker was falsifying reports about the girl’s well-being and that supervisors took little action. The case also led to a new missing child tracking system in Florida, approval of a privatized system of child casework and tougher laws against falsifying child welfare reports.
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.