INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry said a judge’s decision to hold three separate trials in the Richmond Hill explosion case was not a surprise. But, he said it will present unique logistical challenges ahead.
I-Team 8 was first to report Monday that all three suspects will be tried separately. Monserrate Shirley, Mark Leonard and Bob Leonard, Jr. are each accused of more than 50 counts of arson and two counts of murder in connection with last year’s deadly house explosion in the Richmond Hill subdivision.
The decision came after prosecutors filed a motion in late November asking for each of the suspects separate trials to be held at the same time, in the same courtroom, but with three different juries. Defense attorneys voiced concerns that that plan could cause logistical problems. They also argued that there are no legal grounds in Indiana for the request to be granted.
In a ruling issued out of court late Friday, Judge Sheila Carlisle denied the prosecution’s request, saying it could put fair trial rights in jeopardy.
Prosecutors say it will also create some unique challenges ahead, including the scheduling of expert witnesses, evidence preservation, and maintaining consistent testimony from case to case.
“Clearly, that will be an issue down the road to the extent that we have to duplicate that effort on three occasions. But, we’ll address it when we get there. If we can proceed with the first trial and see how that goes, we could determine if there are some efficiencies that we could have in the second and third trials,” Curry told I-Team 8.
Still, despite those reservations, Curry said he wasn’t surprised at Judge Carlisle’s decision.
“We understand the concerns the court had, and defense counsel,” he said. “In the Judge’s mind, those concerns outweighed the possible efficiency we would have gained. Obviously, we were trying to determine if there was a way to do these cases a little more efficiently, because they’re obviously going to be protracted in any event. But, we’re fine with the court’s ruling. That’s the reality, and we’ll be prepared to move forward.”
Former Marion County Public Defender Novella Nedeff, now a clinical associate professor of law at the IU Robert H. McKinney School of Law at Indianapolis, called Carlisle’s ruling a “safe decision.”
“She writes that this is an enormous case, and she understands why the state made this motion. She said their point is well taken. Both sides agree there are more than 200 witnesses per case. And, it is going to be very expensive to try once, and certainly trying it three times is going to be more expensive. But, I think the nail in the coffin was the risk of error, and the risk of something going wrong,” Nedeff said.
Still, Nedeff said separate trials will create their own unique challenges.
“Every time a witness testifies, it’s likely that the attorneys for the next person or the next two people to be tried will want to get a transcript to compare the statement that witness made at the first trial with their prior statements and what they say in the second trial, and so on. It could make that witness subject to impeachment. They could say – today you’re telling the jury ‘x’, but previously you told a jury ‘y.’ It could also cut the other way, with prosecutors say ‘this witness said the same thing three times, so they’re very credible,” she said.
There may also be concerns that results in the earlier trials could impact results in later trials.
“[Juries] shouldn’t be allowed to know about a conviction, but they may hear that this witness testified at some other date, or under oath,” Nedeff said.
But, the biggest motivation behind prosecutors asking for concurrent, or simultaneous trials, was cost. Some have estimated that tripling the amount of time in court could triple costs.
“I’m not sure it’s going to be three times more expensive,” Nedeff responded. “But, there’s no doubt it will greatly increase costs. It’s cheaper to do one trial if everything goes well. But, if it doesn’t go well, you have to do it again. And, it’s more likely that something would go wrong if you have three defendants and these three concurrent juries.”
Defense attorneys have filed change of venue motions asking for Judge Carlisle to move the trials out of Marion County or have jurors from outside the county brought in, due to extensive pre-trial publicity of the case. The decision to separate the trials once and for all could make it more likely that those requests are granted, Nedeff said.
“[Judge Carlisle] could easily say that three trials out of county are going to be more expensive. But, if that’s what it takes to have a fair trial in her mind, that’s what she’ll do,” Nedeff said.
All three suspects are due to return to court for a pre-trial hearing in early March.