Attorneys argue evidence in Richmond Hill case

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (April 29, 2015)-- In what may very likely be his last appearance in a Marion County courtroom, lead Richmond Hill suspect Mark Leonard looked a bit grayer and a bit leaner as he sat before an out-of-town judge during a pre-trial hearing.

Clad in an orange jail jumpsuit with his wrists cuffed together, Leonard listened quietly to almost an hour's worth of discussion of the evidence and arguments that will be offered in his upcoming trial for the fatal explosion that leveled his girlfriend's house in 2012, damaged 80 other homes, caused $4 million in losses and claimed two lives.

St. Joseph Superior Judge John Marnocha convened the hearing in Indianapolis though jury selection is set to begin in South Bend on June 4.

Marnocha said he has a list of up to 280 potential jurors who could be called to fill 18 seats in his courtroom.

Leonard and Monserrate Shirley are accused of plotting to destroy her home in a natural gas explosion as part of an elaborate insurance fraud scheme.

Deputy Prosecutor Denise Robinson told the Court that the State will offer proof of Leonard's alleged financial motive as evidence of the plot.

"I guess the way I look at a trial is you present the jury with all the pieces of evidence," Robinson told reporters outside the courtroom. "You don't withhold certain pieces from them. You give them all the evidence and ask them to make a decision based on everything and I think they need to understand from the State's perspective why this happened in the first place and this gives them the entire picture."

Defense Attorney Diane Black told the judge she needs more information from prosecutors regarding a videotape they have created that demonstrates how the timer on a microwave oven could be set to begin heating up a propane tank contained within, leading to an explosion which would in turn set off a house filled with natural gas from a disabled fireplace.

Investigators think that's how Leonard planned the home explosion.

That piece of demonstrative evidence, "could be pretty important," admitted Black.

Prosecutors also indicated they are ready to explore previous insurance fraud schemes allegedly carried out by Leonard and tell jurors that the conspirators tried and failed at least twice in the weeks before the fatal blast to destroy Shirley's house.

Judge Marnocha has ruled that the State can introduce evidence that from inside the Marion County Jail Leonard allegedly tried to contract with a "hit man" to have a witness killed.

That evidence is expected to include a taped telephone conversation with a federal agent playing the role of a hired killer and Leonard's hand drawn map to the intended victim's house.

Black said the defense would introduce the criminal history of jailhouse informant Robert Smith who put Leonard in touch with the undercover agent and also explore Smith's previous cooperation with law enforcement.

The defense said that the evidence is "so prejudicial," it could lead a jury to "find our client guilty."

Marnocha said he was inclined to let the jury consider the motives involved in the murder-for-hire scheme which the prosecution claims is a continuation of the arson plot.

"I think the importance to the defense of that evidence is how strongly they're trying to keep it out," said Robinson. "It's another piece of the evidence. If we didn't have it we would still be trying this case but, as I indicated, I think the jury is entitled to hear all of the evidence and that includes that particular evidence."

Leonard faces life without parole if convicted, a sentence Shirley avoided by agreeing to plead guilty to two counts of conspiracy to commit arson and testify against her ex-boyfriend.

The defense is expected to apprise jurors of that part of Shirley's deal and Black told the judge she wants to ask the homeowner how her plea agreement was reached with the prosecution.

During a previous hearing in South Bend, defense attorney David Shircliff told the court that he had been engaged in unsuccessful negotiations with Robinson and Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry to plead his client guilty to two counts of reckless homicide that could result in a maximum 58-year sentence.

That deal was rejected and there is no indication that another such agreement is in the works, meaning the trial is on track and Leonard could be transferred to the St. Joseph County Jail during the last week of May.

A final pre-trial hearing in Marnocha's courtroom is set for June 3.

"I'm looking forward to trying this case," said the judge as lawyers for both sides chuckled.

Leonard's case will be the first of possibly four trials involving the five co-conspirators.

Though Shirley will likely never face trial, Leonard's half-brother Bob, who is accused of setting the timer that triggered the blast on Nov. 10, 2012, is slated to go before a jury in Fort Wayne next January.

Gary Thompson stands accused of being by Bob Leonard's side the day of the explosion and Gary Hults, recently released on bond, is charged with encouraging the plot and offering to hide Shirley's personal possessions after the fire.

The State will truck a literal semi-trailer full of evidence to St. Joseph County for the trial which is expected to last at least six weeks.

"As far as total items of evidence...you know we're going to be at a couple thousand of pieces or more of evidence that we're working through," said Robinson. "All I can say is we've got our subpeonas out, we've got our hotel reservations made, we've made arrangements for the evidence to go to South Bend, we're going to be prepared to go to trial."

The defense left the courtroom without comment.

Jennifer and Dion Longworth were Shirley's neighbors on Fieldfar Way and died when there house collapsed from the effects of the blast.