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Delayed by bomb threat, murder trial begins

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Fifty prospective jurors filed into the fourth-floor court room at about 2:45 p.m., Monday, filled the wooden pews, and waited for the prosecuting and defense attorneys to interview them.

The jury questioning in the murder trial of Leon Phillips, Jr., was scheduled to begin at 9 a.m., but was delayed by a phoned-in bomb threat.

The lawyers had just taken their seats in Superior Court Judge Matthew Simmons' court room, and prospective jurors were beginning to fill out questionnaires when court officials received the phone call and evacuated the Harold R. Banke Justice Center.

Court security officials said they spent the morning searching and securing the court house, and at 2 p.m., having found nothing, they let people back inside.

The trial started late, but the prosecution scored an early victory when Simmons granted a "motion for similar transaction." That will allow John Turner, executive assistant district attorney, and Bill Dixon, assistant district attorney, to bring up Phillips' previous felony convictions, because of the similarity between the way the 37-year-old allegedly killed Rhonda Rucker in Riverdale last year, and the way he attacked a woman in 1988 in Fulton County.

According to Turner, the granted motion is usually the "kiss of death," in a case that is built substantially out of circumstantial evidence. Dixon said that while prosecutors are not allowed to raise the issue of a defendant's previous convictions in order to question and challenge character, they will, in this case, be allowed to bring up a previous guilty plea as relevant to motive, mode of operation and "bent of mind."

In 1988, Phillips attacked a woman with a knife in her hotel room, Turner said. He attempted to rob and rape her, later pleading guilty to aggravated assault with intent to rape.

Last year, on Sept. 15, Phillips allegedly entered Rucker's Riverdale home with a .45-caliber gun, pulled off her pants, put a plastic bag over her head, bound her with telephone cords and fatally shot her in the head, according to police and prosecutors. He allegedly took a motorcycle, sports utility vehicle, DVDs and other items from the home, after killing the 34-year-old mother of three.

Prosecutors are expected to try to convict Phillips on 25 counts, ranging from malice murder to driving without a license. They intend to show he was in the Rucker's home before the murder to repair a washing machine and was arrested -- a few miles away from the home, a few hours after the murder -- carrying the murder weapon, riding a stolen motorcycle and carrying a number of items stolen from the home.

Turner has admitted the evidence is circumstantial, but said it is strong evidence and he expects jurors to be able to "connect the dots." During closing arguments, he will lead the jury through a PowerPoint presentation explaining and defending circumstantial evidence.

On Monday afternoon, he asked jurors if they watched a lot of crime dramas on television, and if they realized that the type of forensics evidence seen on TV shows, such as CSI, is not real. He asked jurors if they realized that forensics are not available in every case.

Defense Attorney Brandon Lewis is expected to question the time lapse between the murder and Phillips' arrest, the police's search for a second suspect and the relevance of Phillips' previous convictions.

When arrested, Phillips claimed he had not stolen the items, but had bought them from someone. Riverdale Police Department detectives have evidence that a second person was involved in the 2006 murder, but they have not identified that person.

During the prospective juror's questioning, Monday, Lewis began to lay the ground work for what he hopes will amount to reasonable doubt. He asked if jurors would hold prosecutors to a high standard of evidence, even though CSI is entertainment and not reality, he asked if they believed felons could be rehabilitated, if they could pay attention to details, and not be emotionally swayed by graphic photos.

At a probable cause hearing last year, the defense attorney raised the possibility that Rucker's son, who found the 34-year-old woman bound and murdered in the living room when he came home from school, could have killed his mother.

He also raised the possibility that Rucker had been having an affair with the man suspected of murdering her, and questioned police closely about the second, unknown suspect.

The trial is expected to continue Tuesday morning.