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Murdered woman's son testifies at trial

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Sitting in the witnesses chair, during the trial of the man accused of murdering his mother, 16-year-old Rhyan James looked slowly at pictures, one at a time.

One shows his Riverdale home, belongings dumped all over the floor. Another shows his mother, Rhonda Rucker, stripped from the waste down, her hands and feet bound with a phone cord, her head inside a white plastic bag, lying dead on the floor.

"Who was Rhonda Rucker?" prosecutor Bill Dixon asked the teen.

"Rhonda Rucker," James said. "She was my mother. Me and her had a very tight relationship. She was like my best friend."

The 16-year-old told the lawyer and the sworn-in jury that he found his mother there, face down in the den of the family's Riverdale residence, when he returned home from North Clayton High School on Sept. 15, 2006.

He had started out the day normally, he said -- "woke up, brushed my teeth, washed my face, just like everybody else" -- but when he came home from school, the front door was unlocked, his mother was dead, and his baby brother was locked in an upstairs closet, screaming his name.

"Were you frightened?" Dixon asked.

"I was in shock," James said.

James' testimony concluded the first day of testimony and evidence in the trial of 37-year-old Leon Phillips, Jr., a convicted felon who was arrested on the day of the murder, while riding a motorcycle stolen from the Rucker home.

A jury was selected and sworn in before noon, Tuesday, and the lawyers gave their opening statements at about 1:30 p.m. Prosecutor John Turner talked his way through a PowerPoint presentation, telling jurors the presented evidence would build a "wall of evidence" proving Phillips' guilt.

Phillips worked for a Douglasville appliance company. He had been to the Rucker home about two weeks before the murder, Turner said, to fix their washing machine. On the day of the murder, he did not go to work. He was arrested less than a mile away from the home, on Sept. 15, carrying the gun used to kill Rucker, riding a motorcycle that belonged to the Ruckers, and wearing a helmet and jacket taken from the home, Turner said. When arrested, on charges of riding a motorcycle without a license, he gave police a false name, Turner said.

In 1988, Phillips pled guilty to a somewhat similar crime, proving that "there was a pattern, a scheme, a bent of mind," Turner told the jury.

Defense Attorney Brandon Lewis, representing Phillips, urged jurors to pay special attention to the details of the crime, and consider the lack of forensic evidence in the case.

"There is not one piece of a fingerprint," Lewis said, "one piece of hair, one carpet fiber, one DNA strand that comes back to Mr. Phillips."

Lewis told the jury that the prosecution would not give a time of death, leaving detectives to guess and suppose the connection between Phillips and the murder.

According to Georgia Bureau of Investigation medical examiners, there is no way to tell "time of death," from a dead body, but juries sometime expect TV-like evidence when it's not available, holding unrealistic standards of proof.

According to Phillips, he bought the motorcycle from two men, known as "Mondo" and "Kudzu," and only had the gun because "Mondo" asked him to hold it. Lewis pointed out that Phillips didn't know about the death, when police asked him about it, and had a physical reaction to the news.

"Leon Phillips threw up when he heard Rhonda Rucker was dead," Lewis said. "He was sick. He was upset. And he threw up."

Riverdale Police Department Detective Charles Catley remembered the defendant's response differently, however, and remembered he knew more about the murder than he pretended to know.

"I asked him," Catley told the jury, "'Did you know that the owner of the motorcycle was deceased?' He told me that was not true because the owner was a male. But I didn't indicate to him that the deceased was a female."

"You hadn't given him the specs of the murder victim? If it was a male or a female?" Turner asked.

"No," Catley said. "I said 'the motorcycle owner.'"

Phillips, wearing a dark brown suit, sat through the trial with his chin resting on his right hand. He faces a 25-count indictment, and could be sentenced to life in prison.

The trial is expected to continue at 9 a.m., Wednesday.