INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The trial of one of the suspects accused in the 2012 south side explosion at Richmond Hill will not be held in Marion County. A judge approved a change of venue motion for Mark Leonard on Wednesday after prosecutors dropped their objection to moving the trial.
Leonard’s attorneys filed a request to move the trial in January 2013, due to what they called “extensive pretrial media publicity” in the case. Prosecutors objected to that request, saying they believed a fair and impartial jury could be found in Marion County.
To sort the issue out, Judge Sheila Carlisle ordered the two sides to attempt to select a test jury.
The test jury was designed to help determine whether an impartial jury could be found in Marion County to try Mark Leonard’s case. Leonard, his brother Bob, and Monserrate Shirley each face nearly 50 counts of arson and murder in connection with the November 2012 explosion.
After questioning just 20 test jurors Tuesday, the two sides agreed on a 12-member panel. An additional 12 jurors were selected during an afternoon session. The numbers were so overwhelming, and compiled so quickly, that prosecutors asked the judge to dismiss the remaining jury pool and keep the case in Marion County.
The judge denied that request, and the two sides set out to interview another 58 test jurors Wednesday morning.
But, following a lunch break, Deputy Prosecutor Denise Robinson made an unexpected announcement.
“I went back and looked at the questionnaires [given to test jurors], and I have some grave concerns,” she told the judge. “I believe 19 of the 29 remaining jurors would have to be dismissed for cause. There were another 10 cause challenges granted this morning, and 11 remain under advisement. Because I believe there could be an appellate issue, the state will move to dismiss its objection to defendant’s change of venue motion at this time.”
That dismissal was accepted by Judge Carlisle, who agreed to move the case.
“We want to try this case once, and we want to try it correctly,” Robinson said after the hearing adjourned. “We have to be aware of the appellate review. Judge Carlisle put in place a process that allowed us some time to look at trends and patterns of what might be occurring. And, based on that, I felt that justice required there be a change of venue.”
Asked what changed from her stance yesterday, Robinson paused.
“The change was when I went back and looked at the jurors who had remained on the potential panel. And, I saw that, yes, they survived the cause challenge. But, there were a number of other challenges that could have been made and they likely would not have survived those challenges. At that point, I became aware that while we could survive the sole venue issue, we could not survive other issues.”
Leonard’s defense attorneys declined comment following the ruling, but others who watched the unusual legal tactic said it may have been inevitable.
“I’m not surprised, because they have an interest in making sure their conviction is pristine,” said criminal defense attorney Ralph Staples. “They don’t want to create error right out of the box, which would mean you wasted time in trial, because an appellate court would say: nope, you did it wrong. Do it again.”
A decision on where and when the case will be tried is up to Judge Sheila Carlisle.
“The rule calls for the appointment of a panel, and the parties get to strike them,” Staples said. “And, whichever [court] is left ends up being stuck with the case.”
Wherever the case ends up, Staples expects impartiality will still be an issue.
“This case received national attention,” he said. “So, it’s going to be hard to find anybody who hasn’t heard something about this case. And, that’s the challenge the defense has in this case. All the things that have been reported that may or may not be true will still stick to the client and will make someone think: hey, that guy is a bad guy. I’m going to find him guilty just because he’s a bad guy, not because the state has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that he did something.”
Each of the suspects is being tried separately, and have also asked for their trials to be moved outside Marion County. Change of venue hearings have been scheduled for Bob Leonard and Monserrate Shirley in August and September.