SOUTH BEND, Ind. (WISH) — The trial of at least one of the suspects accused in the 2012 south side explosion will be held in St. Joseph County, Indiana, court documents obtained by I-Team 8 revealed Wednesday.
Marion County Judge Sheila Carlisle agreed to move Mark Leonard’s case outside Marion County after prosecutors dropped their objection to his change of venue request. She ordered the case moved to South Bend late Wednesday.
Leonard, his half-brother Bob Leonard, Jr. and former girlfriend Monserrate Shirley each face nearly 50 arson and murder charges in connection with the explosion at Richmond Hill, which killed Dion and Jennifer Longworth and damaged or destroyed dozens of homes. Prosecutors say the three hatched a plan to blow the house up in order to collect insurance money.
SELECTING A VENUE
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.
“We’re pleased that the selection process for choosing a county to hear the case is complete,” said Leonard’s lead public defender Deana Martin in a statement to I-Team 8. “St. Joseph was a county that both parties felt would be appropriate to hear this case. There is still no trial date set nor do we expect one to be set until a judge is selected. There will undoubtedly be hearings in front of the new judge that will occur prior to trial.”
It remains unclear which St. Joseph County judge will end up hearing the case, but prosecutors were satisfied with the county selection, Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry said Wednesday.
“One of the factors we looked at was the resources and space available in the local prosecutor’s office,” Curry told I-Team 8. “So, just as we did in the [Former IMPD Officer David] Bisard case where we were accommodated by the Allen County Prosecutor, I would anticipate the same will occur here. I certainly would anticipate the defendant will be moved up to the St. Joseph County Jail for the purposes of the trial, and would need to stay there for the duration of the trial.”
Prosecutors initially objected to the request to move the trial, saying they believed a fair and impartial jury could be found in Marion County. That objection was eventually dropped after Deputy Prosecutor Denise Robinson told Carlisle she believed keeping the case in Marion County could create an appellate issue.
Following the change of venue ruling, Judge Carlisle issued an order instructing the two sides to alternate “strikes” from a list of eligible counties she provided. St. Joseph County was the final county left at the end of that striking process.
Curry said he believed it would be inappropriate to release the names of other counties considered through that process without authorization from the court.
Bob Leonard and Shirley have also requested their trials be moved outside Marion County. A judge has yet to set hearings on those requests.
A CHALLENGING MOVE
Moving even one of the cases will be a daunting task. Moving all three would likely be unprecedented in Indiana, Curry said.
Each case is expected to include more than 200 potential witnesses and 30,000 pages of documents.
“No matter where the case landed, it was going to be a challenge,” Curry said. “We’ll have as many as five or six staff persons who will have to be in St. Joseph County for the entire length of the trial, which we’ve estimated at this point is six weeks per trial. We literally believe we’ll have to rent a semi [truck] to transport the exhibits. There are well over 2,000 exhibits that will be presented in the trial. So, clearly it will be a logistical undertaking. But, we accomplished it in the Officer Bisard case, and we’re confident we can do it here as well.”
Though the venue has been selected, much still remains unclear about the move to St. Joseph County.
Curry dismissed concerns that media coverage of the case in the South Bend-Elkhart media market may also have tainted potential jurors there, saying most “will not have formed an opinion” on the case, as they might have in Central Indiana.
Of greater concern is the potential cost associated with the move.
“In the Bisard case, we had additional expenses of $70,000 that we were able to bear within our existing budget,” Curry said. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect it could easily be as much as 10 times that amount for the Richmond Hill case, for one [trial].”
No trial date has been set in any of the three cases, though prosecutors said earlier this month they would push for a start date in Mark Leonard’s case in late January or early February. Martin had asked for an April 2015 start date in Mark Leonard’s case.
“We’re now at the mercy of the court’s calendar [in St. Joseph County],” Curry said. “We’ll be ready for whatever happens there.”