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Infamous crash set for trial

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Falleen Randle has revisited the pain by design. She's reviewed accident scene photos of Interstate 85 where two of her three children, and her only grandchild, were killed in a calamity of asphalt, metal and glass. She's read each word of their autopsy reports.

Randle has reintroduced herself to tragedy so it won't overtake her next week.

"I wanted to try to prepare myself at home, so that I wouldn't have to see it all for the first time in court," Randle wrote this week in an e-mail from Utah.

Randle's family was ripped apart nearly 21/2 years ago in what veteran emergency personnel called the deadliest single crash in the history of Gwinnett's interstate system. Beginning Monday, she hopes the saga will be nearing closure.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday morning in the vehicular homicide case of Gainesville resident Cody Rhoden, 22, the alleged driver of the red Acura RSX thought to have triggered the chain-reaction crash. An investigator in 2008 who interviewed nearly 30 witnesses said Rhoden's driving that evening appeared "suicidal," in that he exceeded 100 mph while weaving traffic, fast enough that other cars seemed motionless.

The trial isn't a sure bet. Defense attorneys for Rhoden filed a motion for a change of venue in April that is still pending. Gwinnett residents were saturated by metro Atlanta media reports that continued for weeks after the crash, the motion contends, in theory.

District Attorney Danny Porter said judges have two options when considering change of venue. They can rule on the motion prior to trial, or after there's an attempt to compile a jury that fails because of pretrial publicity, he said.

Lawyers on both sides said Friday they were readying for trial next week. Neither side shed much light on potential courtroom tactics or other details, citing the pending motion.

Assistant District Attorney Tracie Cason, a co-prosecutor, said Gwinnett Superior Court Judge Dawson Jackson has scheduled three weeks to hear the case. One of Rhoden's lawyers, Dawsonville-based Ridge Rairigh, said the change of venue motion was filed before his involvement.

"I'm not going to comment anything further on the case," Rairigh said.

A representative in Jackson's office wouldn't say if extra accommodations are being made to host media and family, which are expected to turn out in high numbers.

Randle said family members from as far as St. Louis and California, in addition to friends and co-workers the family left in Georgia, plan to converge at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center for the trial. She was expecting to fly into Atlanta today.

"We will be there for the entire trial," she said.

Youth, interrupted

On the evening of March 31, 2008, Cody Rhoden, a product of Winder's Apalachee High School, was a 20-year-old automotive technician with a penchant for tricked-out cars. His only brushes with the law were two speeding tickets, one coming the day he got his driver's license. He'd grown up a baseball fanatic, his family said at the time.

Police and family members agreed that Rhoden was heading back to Hall County after attending the Atlanta Braves' home opener with buddies. One witness told police Rhoden drank up to five 16 oz. beers at the game, according to earlier testimony.

Meanwhile, the Randle family was also northbound on I-85 in a 2003 Ford Excursion, after flying into Atlanta from a wedding in their native Utah. They'd hired Mark Anthony Gay, 44, of Lawrenceville, to drive. Six members of the family were aboard.

What happened near the Indian Trail-Lilburn Road exit is the source of debate.

Police said Rhoden's Acura swept out of the HOV lane and clipped the Excursion, causing it to flip multiple times. Rhoden's family and attorney have acknowledged his involvement in the crash but questioned his guilt in triggering it.

Police said Rhoden later ditched his damaged Acura RSX at a nearby hotel before turning himself in the next day. A police report identified his passenger during the crash as Josh Kitchens, of Gainesville. Kitchens, currently an inmate at the Fulton County Jail on unrelated charges, has been subpoenaed to testify next week, court records show.

Four of seven people in the SUV died, essentially cutting the Randle family in half.

Victims included Whitney Randle, 21, her infant son, Kayden, her brother, Alexander Randle, 14, a freshman at Peachtree Ridge High School, and Gay, the driver.

In June that year, a Gwinnett grand jury indicted Rhoden on 11 counts, including four counts of vehicular homicide. Cason, the prosecutor, declined to say what sentence he potentially faces.

Rhoden's only reprieve from courtrooms and the Gwinnett County Jail since April 1, 2008 was to attend the funerals of his grandfather and mother. At both ceremonies, deputies guarded him closely.

Closure coming?

Falleen Randle's husband, Demetrius, was comatose for months from injuries he suffered in the crash. Upon reviving, he underwent procedures for brain damage and heavy scarring at a hyperbaric treatment clinic in Malibu, Calif., where his wife rented a place to assist in recovery.

Randle said this week her husband still cannot walk on his own, despite biweekly physical therapy. The couple's sole remaining child, Christopher, has joined them back in Utah after graduating from Miles College in Alabama.

"He helps out tremendously with his father," she said.

Randle predicts the trial will be her most difficult experience since the fallout from the crash, even though she's seen the grisly details in an effort to soften the blow.

"Nobody should ever have to see or read this kind of material about their beautiful children and grandchild," Randle wrote in an e-mail. "It's going to be so hard to go through, but we are ready to have some closure."