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

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, Indianapolis criminal defense attorney Jack Crawford said the tactic can also provide valuable insight.

“This option of a test jury is unusual for Marion County, but it’s been done in other jurisdictions across the country. And, I think the judge is being very careful to determine if we can get 12 people who can judge this case fairly,” he told I-Team 8.

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.

“They’ll be asked a wide variety of things,” Crawford said. “Have you heard about it? Do you know about it? How did you find out about it? And, most importantly — have you formed an opinion about the guilt or innocence of the defendants charged in the case? Those are critical questions of fairness.”

Some replies to those 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.”

“Simple knowledge of the case is not enough. The court has to feel that a significant portion of the jurors in the case not only know about it, but have reached an opinion in the case. And, then the next question becomes: can the jury set aside whatever opinion they’ve reached and decide the case on the facts and the law?” Crawford said.

Responses to the 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, including addressing potential costs associated with the test jury process.

Marion County pays prospective jurors $15, plus costs for mileage, based on their zip code. Each of the 125 test jurors would have earned that money for filling out questionnaires on Friday.

The 99 jurors slated to be called back for additional questioning starting Tuesday morning will each earn another $40 per day, plus mileage. If the process stretches into Thursday, as scheduled, the cost could total more than $13,000.

That’s despite the fact that none of those jurors will actually decide any part of the case.

“But, in the long run, it will save the county money,” Crawford said. “To try and pick a jury, calling in hundreds of jurors for the actual three trials and not be able to do that because too many know about the case would be a waste of time and money. The money spent on the test jury is a drop in the bucket compared to how much this trial is going to cost. I know people don’t like to hear that, but this is an important case, and justice is not cheap.”

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.

“The Richmond (Hill) explosion case could be the most expensive case in Marion County history, easily in the millions of dollars,” Crawford said. “This is an expensive, but important procedure. We don’t want to do it twice. So, let’s find out now if the people of Marion County can form an opinion based on the facts and the law.”

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