Defense argues there was gender bias in conviction of Mark Leonard during sentencing hearing

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Mark Leonard (Sketch by Dave Blodgett)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (July 15, 2015)– While St. Joseph Superior Judge John Marnocha weighed the questions about whether Mark Leonard should go to prison forever after his conviction in the Richmond Hill case, the killer’s attorneys argued he was a victim of gender bias.

Leonard was convicted of 53 counts of arson, conspiracy, insurance fraud and murder for the 2012 explosion that obliterated then-girlfriend Monserrate Shirley’s house and killed neighbors Jennifer and Dion Longworth.

Shirley testified, as part of a plea agreement, she felt pressured every step of the way to allow Leonard to blow up her house in pursuit of a $300,000 home insurance payoff.

As part of her deal with the State, Shirley will continue to cooperate in the prosecution of her co-conspirators and receive a sentence that will someday permit her to leave prison.

In arguing against the imposition of the life without parole sentence, Defense Attorney Diane Black told Judge Marnocha her client’s potential prison term was unfair compared to Shirley’s eventual fate.

“She was involved,” said Black, reciting Shirley’s role in the November 10, 2012, explosion and motive. “She boarded the cat, went to the casino. She knew she was going to get monies.

“What’s the difference?” the council asked. “Ms. Shirley got a plea and she’s a woman and he’s a man and it’s a gender issue.

“The State played that she’s a woman in love and can’t make up her mind because she’s in love.

“She walks away without life without parole, but our client is a male.

“He was not a mastermind and no more involved than Monserrate Shirley.”

After the hearing recessed, deputy prosecutor Denise Robinson scoffed at the characterization that Shirley got a better deal because she’s a woman.

“No, that’s not the case. The case is based on participation and as we told the jurors during Closing that when we put up the photographs of the conspirators there was one conspirator at the center of the photographs and that was Mark Leonard.”

The Defense argued that the life without parole option did not apply in the sentencing because specific aggravating factors were missing, that is, Leonard was not present at the time the plot was activated, that torture in the death of Dion Longworth was not intended and that the convictions for Felony Murder do not lend themselves to such a term without hope of release.

Judge Marnocha said he would not sentence on the felony murder convictions as the prosecution noted that those counts would likely be vacated in favor of the murder findings.

The prosecutors then handed over to the judge State’s evidence #562 and #563, recordings and documentation of a phone call Dion Longworth made to Infinity/Comcast requesting rescue from his burning basement.

“Mark Leonard did burn John (Dion) Longworth while John (Dion) Longworth was alive,” said Robinson who later described the recording as the most horrific piece of evidence she had reviewed in more than 20 years as a prosecutor.

Judge Marnocha indicated he had listened to the recording of Longworth’s death though he found it too prejudicial to permit its introduction in the trial.
The Court ordered Leonard held in the St. Joseph County Jail to await his sentencing Aug. 14.

Judge Marnocha said he would determine the sentence before then but would permit Richmond Hill neighbors to testify as to the appropriateness of the penalty for the man convicted of blowing up their community and killing their friends.

While he did not testify in his own defense, Leonard will be given the opportunity to speak to the Court, though it is likely the killer will remain silent to preserve his appeal options.

Black told the judge her client will appeal his conviction.

Judge Marnocha cautioned the media to avoid the typical speculation on the range of penalties that could be imposed, but then, based on his own calculations, said, “The appropriate sentence would be somewhere between 45 and 1,488 years.”

Should the Court send Leonard to prison for life without parole, all set term options would become moot save as a backup to a potentially successful appeal of his potential life without parole sentence.