Test jurors to determine whether Richmond Hill explosion trial will be moved

Monserrate Shirley, Mark Leonard and Bob Leonard (left to right) (Photos provided/Marion County Jail)
Monserrate Shirley, Mark Leonard and Bob Leonard (left to right) (Photos provided/Marion County Jail)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — A Marion County judge will use a rare legal move to help determine whether the trial of one of the suspects in the 2012 south side explosion should be moved outside of Marion County.

Mark Leonard claims a Marion County jury would not be impartial because of the intense media coverage that’s followed the case. He stayed silent as he walked to court early Monday morning.

Leonard, his brother Bob Leonard, Jr. and Monserrate Shirley are each accused of nearly 50 counts of arson and two counts of murder in connection with the November 2012 explosion on the city’s south side.

In March, their attorneys asked for more time to prepare their cases before trial. Carlisle agreed to “vacate” the scheduled June 16 start date for each of the three trials. No new trial dates have been set.

In January 2013, defense attorneys for all three suspects asked for the trials to be moved outside Marion County, citing “extensive pretrial publicity” of the case.

On Monday morning, Mark Leonard’s attorneys presented Judge Sheila Carlisle with a thick file containing published media reports on the case, claiming they have tainted any potential local jury pool.

To determine whether that’s true, Judge Carlisle agreed to use a rare legal tactic known as a “test jury,” where the county’s normal jury pool is used to test whether a fair trial could be conducted. It’s considered rare because it can be a time consuming and expensive process.

But, Judge Carlisle said Monday that it could help answer the critical question of where Mark Leonard’s trial should be held. Similar change of venue hearings have also been scheduled in the other two cases.

On Friday, 125 potential test jurors filled out detailed questionnaires on their knowledge of the case. The questionnaires ask jurors what they’ve seen and heard through the media, and whether they could remain impartial if asked to render a verdict on the case.

Some replies raised eyebrows in court Monday.

One juror replied that he believed the explosion had been intentionally set when he first heard about it. Another said he had worked in the natural gas industry, and had extensive knowledge of the area. Another said media reports had caused him to form an opinion that the suspects were “greedy, unpredictable and insane.”

Responses to questionnaires resulted in 25 of the jurors being struck — or dismissed — from consideration Monday morning. Another potential test juror was dismissed due to medical reasons.

The remaining 99 jurors will be questioned by prosecutors and defense attorneys beginning Tuesday morning. None have yet been told that their service would be for “test” purposes only — and that they would not render a verdict in the actual trial. But, Judge Carlisle said Monday that she would inform jurors of those facts as they were called in for questioning.

Both prosecutors and defense attorneys declined to comment on the case as court adjourned Monday morning.

If the two sides can agree on a jury of 16-24 people, including alternates, then the judge could consider keeping the case in Indianapolis. If not, she could consider moving it to another county or bringing a jury into Marion County from an outside county.

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