By Russ McQuaid
INDIANAPOLIS (July 28, 2014) – The first of 99 potential test jurors in the Richmond Hill case will enter a Marion Superior courtroom Tuesday morning to be questioned about their knowledge of the fatal blast and whether media coverage has made it impossible for them to give the defendants fair trials.
More than 120 prospective test jurors filled out questionnaires last week regarding their exposure to television and newspaper accounts of the case and if they’ve drawn any conclusions.
Before the first test juror was seated, the court and attorneys representing the defense and the prosecution moved to strike 20% of the list.
Lead defendant Mark Leonard sat at the defense table in a yellow shirt and brown and red tie as his attorneys debated whether he could receive a fair trial in Marion County. Marion Superior Judge Sheila Carlisle presided.
Leonard, his girlfriend Monserrate Shirley and his half-brother Bob Leonard are each charged with two counts of murder and multiple counts of arson for the November 2012, explosion that leveled Shirley’s house, damaged dozens of the homes of residents in their south side community and killed neighbors Dion and Jennifer Longworth.
Marion County prosecutors contend the Leonard brothers and Shirley conspired to destroy the home in an insurance fraud scheme to relieve Mark Leonard and Shirley from overwhelming debt brought on by gambling losses, a previous bankruptcy and potential foreclosure.
Defense attorneys Deana Martin and Diane Black contend that extensive media coverage from the date of the blast through the investigation and arrests and until today’s hearing made it doubtful that Leonard could receive a fair trial free of juror bias in Marion County.
The test jurors filled out standard jury duty questionnaires and a change of venue questionnaire Friday and were instructed to undertake no research or conversations about the Richmond Hill case over the weekend.
“How could this happen?” one potential test juror confessed to asking in response to an inquiry. The defense then said the test juror offered an opinion that all three defendants should be tried to together.
Carlisle agreed that the potential test juror would need to be questioned further before being struck from the list.
The test jury’s answers to attorney and prosecution inquiries about their knowledge of the case or conclusions they have drawn will determine if Carlisle will grant the Leonard motion to either move the case out of Indianapolis or bring a jury from a distant locale to hear the evidence.
Carlisle also received a two-inch thick defense motion regarding 35 pieces of media evidence regarding coverage of the case and potential “for cause” strike challenges of potential test jurors.
“Obviously the court is going to need significant time to read through all of these,” said the judge, emphasizing the defendant’s burden of presenting evidence on behalf of his motion and that “the state will be here all week and have plenty of time to consider the evidence.”
The change of venue hearing and its challenges to potential test jurors marks the first significant motion hearing that indicates the complexity of the case against the three defendants.
The judge has already determined each defendant will be tried separately as defense attorneys cited potential conflicting defenses which may result in the Leonards and Shirley pinning the blame for the scheme on each other.
Each trial could potentially hear from 250 witnesses and testimony regarding thousands of pieces of evidence, much of it scientific in nature.
One local defense attorney, not connected to this case, indicated that statewide and national media saturation coverage may make it difficult to find an uninformed jury anywhere in Indiana.
“I think it’s going to be hard for the defense to show that anywhere they go they’ll be able to get a fair trial based on the pretrial publicity and whether or not it has poisoned a potential pool of jurors,” said Ralph Staples, a former Marion County prosecutor. “You can go north and they’ve heard about the case. You can go south, people have heard about the case and people in those locales have probably formed opinions and they’ve expressed those opinions to their friends.”
The cost of the case may well exceed a million dollars based on its breadth and the need for expert testimony and the fact that Leonard is being represented by public defenders.
Each trial is expected to last at least six weeks.
Last fall former, Indianapolis Metropolitan police officer David Bisard was convicted in the DUI killing of a motorcyclist during a trial that was held in Fort Wayne.
The tab for the monthlong trial in Allen County was $57,000 in court costs alone and required a handful of outside technical experts.
The Richmond Hill case is built upon the prosecution’s theory that the Leonards and Shirley conspired to fill the woman’s house with natural gas from an intentionally altered fireplace valve and then ignited it with a metal propane gas canister inside a microwave oven.