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Weighing different stories, jurors find felon guilty of murder

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Leon Phillips, Jr., 37, was found guilty of murder, and given two life sentences Thursday after two days of trial, and an afternoon and evening of jury deliberations.

A Clayton County jury spent Thursday afternoon weighing Phillips' guilt or innocence, and considering the credulity of two stories about the murder of Rhonda Rucker, a 34-year-old mother of three.

In the story told by the prosecution, and apparently believed by the jury, Phillips is a violent, recidivist felon who was using his job as an appliance repairman to scope out his next victim and plan his brutal, September 2006 assault on Rucker.

In the defense attorney's alternate story, Phillips is an uneducated man who bought a motorcycle, not realizing he was being set up by gang members to take the fall for a homicide.

"The state wants you to believe there are no chapters missing from their story," said Brandon Lewis, Phillips' lawyer during closing arguments. "The state wants you to believe Leon Phillips killed Rhonda Rucker and that's it ... The state has a story, a theory, but you got to fill it with the evidence. You've got to do it. Otherwise, we ought not even have a trial."

According to Lewis, and according to Phillips' statements to police, the 37-year-old was called on his way to work last September by two men known as "Mondo" and "Kudzu." Instead of going to work, he allegedly met "Mondo" and "Kudzu" at a Git-N-Go gas station, in Riverdale, paid $700 for the motorcycle, and agreed to hold on to a .45-caliber gun.

When told of the murder, by Riverdale Police Detectives, Phillips was so upset he threw up, Lewis said.

John Turner, executive assistant district attorney, dismissed the idea the former felon's physical reaction is a sign of innocence.

"He vomited because he was caught," Turner told the jury. During his closing arguments, Thursday morning, Turner said the explanation of Phillips' innocence -- involving a novel-length conspiracy, a long list of coincidences, and detectives and prosecutors who are willing themselves blind to evidence -- is "impossible" and "fantastic."

"I told you [Lewis] is a great attorney," Turner said. "He tried his best to sell you the big lie."

Rucker, 34, was found dead in her Riverdale home on a Friday afternoon by her eldest son, Rhyan James, 16, as he returned from school. She was in the den floor, naked from the waist down, her hands and feet bound by telephone cords, her head covered by a plastic bag. She had been shot with a .45 through the back of the head, and the home had been ransacked and robbed.

Phillips was arrested a few hours before the murder was discovered. He was riding a motorcycle belonging to the Ruckers and carrying the .45-caliber murder weapon.

The district attorney's office had a very strong circumstantial case against Phillips, but the defense attorney criticized the lack of forensics, suggesting the absence of fingerprints, footprints and DNA evidence amounts to reasonable doubt.

Phillips, wearing the same dark brown suit on his fourth day in court, sat in a holding cell waiting to hear which account the jury believed. Rucker's family sat in the hallway outside the courtroom and in the district attorney's office at the end of the hall, waiting for hours while the jury deliberated.

The jury began considering the case after lunch, on Thursday, and, after coming back with a few questions about the law, returned the guilty verdict at about 5 p.m.

Phillips was found guilty on 24 of the 25 counts against him. He was found not guilty of malice murder, but was found guilty of felony murder and all the other charges related to the September 2006 crime.

Clayton County Superior Court Judge Matthew Simmons sentenced Phillips to life without parole, followed by a sentence of life, followed by a sentence of 25 years in prison.