‘Ladies and gentlemen, we have a jury’; Full jury now seated in Richmond Hill trial

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Judge John Marnocha (Sketch by Dave Blodgett)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (June 8, 2015)– At 12:47 p.m. Monday, St. Joseph Superior Judge John Marnocha announced that after two-and-a-half days of voir dire, a jury has been seated to hear the case against Mark Leonard.

Two hours earlier, the lead Richmond HIll defendant entered a South Bend courtroom in chains accompanied by a St. Joseph County police officer. Leonard was dressed in a white shirt with its cuffs unbuttoned, a striped necktie and black pants. He engaged in small talk with the officer as his wrist and leg shackles and belly chains were removed so that potential jurors would not see him as a prisoner but rather a man presumed innocent until proven guilty of a horrific crime that literally rocked Indianapolis.

Leonard is accused of being the driving force behind the destruction of his girlfriend’s house, the damaging of 80 more dwellings, the killing of two neighbors and the loss of $4 million in what prosecutors call an insurance fraud scheme in the Richmond Hill community in November of 2012.

Despite his presence at the Hollywood Casino on the Ohio River in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, the night of the natural gas blast, Leonard faces 53 counts including arson, conspiracy and murder for the deaths of neighbors Dion and Jennifer Longworth who died when their own house caught fire and collapsed around them before firefighters could perform a rescue.

The fathers of the dead couple will be in St. Joseph Superior Judge John Marnocha’s courtroom Monday.

Before opening statements by prosecutors and the defense, Judge Marnocha went about the business of filling two empty seats in his jury box.

Twelve jurors and four alternates were chosen Friday with the last two panelists to be chosen in the third day of voir dire, but when Judge Marnocha entered the courtroom he announced to the attorneys that, “we have an issue.”

The judge referred to juror three, a school teacher who told the Court Friday, “Call me naive, I could be a pretty good juror, and I can’t believe that I said that.”

The woman also told the Court she intended to move to Michigan or Canada later in the month.

“Well, you’re an Indiana resident now,” answered the judge.

Before the start of the morning session, Judge Marnocha told the attorneys that juror three, who had engaged the defense during her selection process, informed the Court that after June 25th she would no longer be an Indiana resident and was moving to Lansing, Michigan, therefore the Court excused her from the jury and she was replaced by the first alternate juror, opening up three back-up spots to be filled by the morning session.

Defense Attorney David Shircliff noted that a handful of candidates watched local media coverage referring to last week’s failed Day one of jury selection when the Leonard attorneys told the prospective panel that their client had  been charged with attempting to have a witness in his case murdered.

Judge Marnocha agreed as recently as Monday morning that there had been such reports and later, when the prospective jurors were shown into his courtroom, he cautioned them to not be swayed by media reports and to confine themselves to evidence presented in court.

Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry took a seat in the third row of gallery benches, sitting behind the 24 potential jurors yet to be quizzed.

When Judge Marnocha asked if any of the prospective jurors had formed an opinion as to Leonard’s guilt or innocence based on pre-trial publicity, four hands went up.

When Leonard was introduced to the pool, he looked at the gallery and offered a short wave.

With her boss looking on, Deputy Prosecutor Denise Robinson took the potential jurors on a short verbal tour of the difference between a defendant who “intentionally” committed murder as opposed to one who “knowingly” performed acts that a reasonable person could know might go wrong and have an unintended result.

Leonard is accused of blowing up Monserrate Shirley’s house in such a reckless manner in pursuit of a $300,000 insurance payoff that the unintended deaths of the Longworth’s next door happened.

“You know this case is important,” Robinson told the first panel of the pool. “Its important for the defendant, obviously, but its also important for the people affected.”

Defense Attorney David Shircliff began his session with the candidates by asking what questions they might have of him.

Members of the pool told Shircliff that the number of charges made their consideration of the case overwhelming.

“Its going to be a slog,” answered Shircliff. “Being members of the jury, you get to watch Mr. Leonard the whole time he sits there,” said the attorney, pointing at his client. “You’re not going to hear from him.”

One man in the jury box recalled specific findings of the investigation, that a gas regulator had been removed from a fireplace valve in Shirley’s house and that a kitchen appliance timer had been set to trigger the blast.

Another woman told Shircliff that many of her fellow candidates had already drawn opinions about Leonard’s guilt based on earlier reports on the crime.

“Mr. Leonard won’t testify,” repeated Shircliff. “Will that affect your ability to presume he is innocent in this trial?”

Shircliff also delved into the process each panel member goes through in dealing with grief as he talked about the deaths of, “two innocent people.” and the neighborhood victims who, “no longer feel safe in their homes.”

One woman admitted she teared up in the jury box just thinking about dealing with grief in response to the attorney’s question.

At the end of the morning session, the judge announced four more alternate jurors were picked as another juror picked from the Friday session was excused.

During the David Bisard trial of 2013, four members of the jury hearing the case against an IMPD officer accused of driving drunk on duty and killing a motorcyclist were dismissed for various reasons, leaving no alternates and forcing the Court to scramble on literally the last day to salvage the proceedings that resulted in guilty verdicts.

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