INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Holding out the prospect of a test jury to determine potential juror bias, Marion Superior Judge Shelia Carlisle has informed one of the remaining Richmond Hill suspects he should be ready to defend himself beginning September 6 in her courtroom.
“September is your go date,” Judge Carlisle told Gary Thompson and his attorneys during a preliminary hearing called to examine evidence pertaining to a change of venue motion.
Defense Counsel Heather Barton filed the motion in April, reiterating Friday, “I don’t believe my client can get a fair trial in the Indianapolis market.”
Barton introduced what she said were 1,200 pages of web reporting on the 2012 insurance fraud explosion that took two lives, rocked a south side neighborhood and has so far resulted in convictions of the two lead conspirators.
“Once the words, ‘Richmond Hill,’ and, ‘Southside Bombing,’ come up,” Barton told the Court, “I don’t believe we can get a fair trial.”
Opening statements are set for September 12 as Thompson is accused of carrying out the orders of Mark Leonard and accompanying his half-brother Bob Leonard to the house of Monserrate Shirley on Fieldfare Way on November 10, 2012, setting a microwave timer and triggering a massive natural gas explosion that caused more than $4 million in losses and damaged or destroyed more than 80 homes in pursuit of an expected $300,000 home insurance claim.
Neighbors Jennifer and Dion Longworth were killed in the blast.
Thompson, like the Leonard brothers, faces murder, arson and conspiracy charges and the potential of life in prison without parole.
Lead Prosecutor Denise Robinson has agreed to exclude potential jurors from Marion, Johnson and Shelby counties as a previous test jury proved it was impossible to find panel members who did not have a personal recollection or connection to the explosion case.
The State has offered to accept a jury drawn from any of the other contiguous counties to Indianapolis as well as Madison County.
Barton said she could agree to a jury bused in every day from Anderson.
Judge Carlisle told both sides, “The Court has been here ready to go forward on this case for a long time,” and that she would not impanel a jury from a location more than a 90-minute daily bus ride from her courtroom.
The judge said she was not yet convinced that a fair jury could not be found in Marion County, and would entertain calling a test jury to confirm that perception, but that her early September start date for a trial was firm and not subject to delay.
The Court noted that media coverage of the case against Thompson paled in comparison to the reporting on the original investigation, early court hearings and the Leonard brothers’ trials.
“If we can stay in Marion County, we are staying in Marion County,” said the judge.
Barton indicated her client’s case would not be as contentious as earlier unsuccessful defenses of the Leonard brothers with no rebuttal of the State’s expert witnesses and no motion of continuance due to change of venue issues.
“We’re not putting on a dog and pony show,” said Barton, “There will be two weeks of us not saying a word.”
“We’re good to go,” promised Robinson.
Again, as in earlier trials, homeowner Shirley will provide key testimony against Thompson.
Shirley told investigators and jurors that Thompson was present during the planning of the explosion by her then-boyfriend Mark Leonard, participated in at least one failed previous attempt and swapped out a thermostat in an unsuccessful preliminary plot.
Investigators theorize that Thompson accompanied Bob Leonard to the home to set the stage for the blast several hours before the explosion and prosecutors indicate there will be new testimony and evidence linking the defendant to the plot that has not yet been heard in court.
Shirley claimed Mark Leonard told her that Thompson had participated in a previous arson-for-profit scheme.
A fourth defendant, Glenn Hults is accused of lesser charges for his alleged role in the conspiracy and is due to go on trial later in the fall.
Shirley pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges to face a presumptive term of approximately 30 years when she is expected to go before Judge Carlisle for sentencing after Hults’ trial.