Photo by Corinne Nicholson
LAWRENCEVILLE -- One fact seemed to diffuse all the courtroom praise heaped on Cody Rhoden by family, attorneys and his minister: On the night of March 31, 2008, he drove maniacally enough to kill four people, however inadvertently.
In doing so, testimony showed that three families will never be the same.
In a surprise move, Rhoden, 22, pleaded guilty Monday morning to causing an infamous Interstate 85 chain-reaction crash that killed three members of the same family and their hired driver. His plea came as jury selection in his vehicular homicide trial was to begin.
Gwinnett Superior Court Judge Dawson Jackson heard tearful victim impact statements from camps asking for leniency and, conversely, swift justice for the former Gainesville automotive technician.
Jackson ultimately sided with the state, sentencing Rhoden to serve 40 years in prison followed by 30 on probation. Rhoden had rejected a plea bargain offered by prosecutors in April that would have spared him a decade behind bars.
Jackson called the damage inflicted to victims' families "irreparable" and "unspeakable." Rhoden, donning a matching silver tie and dress shirt, avoided eye contact with four rows of supporters, some of them piping, "Love you, Cody," as deputies led him away.
Rhoden's criminal negligence was too great for leniency, the judge said.
Phil Wiley, chief assistant district attorney, reminded the court that Rhoden was threading traffic up I-85 at between 95 and 120 miles per hour that night. The fateful impact with the SUV carrying the victims occurred only when Rhoden tried to pass them -- via the emergency space between the dividing barrier and HOV lane, Wiley said.
Earlier, on the witness stand, Rhoden's voice cracked as he told remaining members of the Randle family that he relives the crash every night. He said he'd trade his life for those lost in a heartbeat.
"It's very hard for me to sit here and face you guys," Rhoden said, as Demetrius Randle, who lost two children and his only grandchild, watched from his wheelchair in the first row. "I want you to know I'm so sorry for what happened that night."
Rhoden's father, Carmen, called his youngest son a straight-shooting, God-fearing kid with a knack for vehicle repairs, who'd been driving since he could reach steering wheels from his father's lap.
"He's probably one of the greatest kids you could ever have," the elder Rhoden said.
Rhoden's attorneys said the plea resulted from their client's trepidation in facing a jury trial. It came so late in the process because time-consuming issues had to be examined, such as complex testimony from expert witnesses, said attorney Ridge Rairigh.
He called the amount of evidence both sides were preparing to present "astronomical."
Attorneys "haven't done anything to draw this out," Rairigh assured the Randle family. "It's just taken this long."
Both Rairigh and co-counsel Michael Proctor declined comment following the judge's ruling.
The crash happened when the Randle family was traveling northbound on I-85 in a 2003 Ford Excursion, after flying into Atlanta from a wedding in their native Utah. Four of seven people in the SUV died when Rhoden clipped the vehicle in his Acura RSX, causing it to flip multiple times.
Victims included Whitney Randle, 21, her infant son, Kayden, her brother, Alexander Randle, 14, a freshman at Peachtree Ridge High School, and their driver, Mark Anthony Gay, 44.
Rhoden then ditched his damaged Acura at a nearby hotel before turning himself in the next day. Wiley reiterated that Rhoden initially lied to police about the location of his car and attributed its damage to hail.
Assistant District Attorney Trace Cason, a co-prosecutor, called the case tragic for all three families.
"No one wins in this situation," Cason said, "but we feel justice was served."