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DA weighs death penalty in Rucker murder

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Spending only a moment in deliberations, a Clayton County grand jury indicted a 37-year-old on 25 charges, including murder, armed robbery, kidnapping and assault.

"They didn't take but a second after we walked out of the room before they voted on it," said John Turner, executive assistant district attorney.

One juror suggested prosecutors pursue the death penalty in the case against Leon Phillips, Jr., a College Park resident accused of putting a plastic bag over 34-year-old, Rhonda Rucker's head, tying a telephone cord around her neck, and shooting her in the back of the head with a .45-caliber gun, Turner said.

The District Attorney's office is considering seeking the death penalty, but has not yet made a decision. Turner said the decision may depend on Phillips' willingness to name a co-defendant. Police, prosecutors and the victim's family believe there was another invader in the Ruckers' Riverdale home, the day she died, but only Phillips has been caught.

Phillips did not talk to police, when he was arrested a little more than a year ago, while riding a motorcycle stolen from the home and carrying a pistol matching the murder weapon.

"We'll see if he wants to cooperate," Turner said. "If he doesn't, then we're going to fly the black flag. We're taking no prisoners."

The case against Phillips is circumstantial, depending primarily on the things in the 37-year-old convicted felons' possession at the time of his arrest.

Phillips was stopped in a road check at 12:55 p.m., on Sept. 15, 2006. A Riverdale Police officer reported that he saw Phillips throw something into the road-side weeds, and, when stopped, the College Park man didn't have a driver's license or proof of insurance.

He gave police a false name, which was discovered when his finger prints showed he had spent six years in prison for armed robbery and aggravated assault, according to police. Searching the weeds, police found a .45, and Phillips was jailed on traffic-violation allegations.

A 3:41 p.m., that Friday, Rhonda Rucker's oldest son came home from school, and found his mother dead in the living room. Ryhan James, then 15, armed himself with a kitchen knife, rescued his youngest brother locked in an upstairs closet, and called 911 from a neighbor's house. Police found the 920 Canary Court home had been robbed. A video game system, a collection of DVDs, a GMC Suburban, a motorcycle and a motorcycle helmet and jacket were reported missing.

Phillips was wearing the helmet and jacket and riding the Ruckers' motorcycle when he was arrested. Anthony Rucker,Sr., Rhonda's husband, said Phillips had previously done appliance repair work for the family.

During a probable cause hearing, Phillips' defense attorney suggested the 37-year-old had bought the things from another person, and questioned police about the suspected second party.

Turner admitted the case is circumstantial, but said it's strong circumstantial evidence. "We're going at him full force," he said.

A trial date has not yet been set.