State, defense rest in Richmond Hill explosion trial

In this courtroom sketch, Mark Leonard listens on during jury selection. (Art by Joy Hernandez)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (WISH) –  Thursday, the state and defense rested their cases in the trial for Mark Leonard.

It’s been more than two and a half years in the making. Prosecutors rested their case around noon Thursday, after calling the lead detective in the case, IMPD Detective Jeff Wager. Jurors in the Richmond Hill explosion trial heard nearly 20 days of testimony, from nearly 200 witnesses, and saw thousands of pictures, photographs and items of evidence in the case.

Mark Leonard is the first to stand trial in the deadly 2012 blast in the Richmond Hill neighborhood. Prosecutors say he’s the mastermind behind the plot to collect insurance money, by filling his ex-girlfriend’s home with gas, then sparking an explosion using the microwave and a cylinder.

The defense took only about an hour to present its case Thursday afternoon, calling just one witness.

They focused on Leonard’s ex-girlfriend, Monserrate Shirley, trying to discredit her testimony against Leonard.

Shirley is also charged in connection to the explosion, and took a plea agreement with prosecutors.

Defense attorneys played the video of Monserrate Shirley giving a media interview in the days after the explosion, to show how she denied involvement with the explosion at that time, a difference from her testimony for jurors in the trial.

Defense attorneys’ one witness was IMPD Detective Aaron Carter, who interviewed Shirley in the days after the explosion. He told jurors Shirley didn’t say anything about being involved in the blast.

Jurors will be back Monday morning for closing arguments, and then they will be sequestered to deliberate after that.

They’ll need to deliberate on 53 counts, including felony murder, murder, and they’ll also get a lesser option – reckless homicide.

Leonard is also facing life without parole.

Deputy Prosecutor Denise Robinson explained the difference between the felony murder and the murder charges. She said, murder is the knowing killing of another human being. Felony murder simply says while you’re committing another type of felony, a killing occurs.

Jurors will receive pages upon pages of jury instructions Monday.

“That’s our job in closing. Our job is to make a complex case understandable for the jury. That’s something we’ve done in the past, and that’s something we’ll have to do in this case,” said Robinson.

DEFENSE RESTS ITS CASE

Defense attorneys called IMPD Detective Aaron Carter as their only witness. Defense attorneys focused on Monserrate Shirley’s testimony and its credibility.

Carter interviewed Shirley after the explosion, and told jurors Shirley told him she was telling the truth and had nothing to hide.

He said he found it odd when she told him she boarded her cat whenever she went out to the casino.

He also told jurors that when asked, if someone did this [the explosion], how should they pay for it?

Carter told jurors that she responded, they should be punished, they should go to jail. He said she spoke about being Catholic… and having so many pople affected… they should be punished. For life.

He said she never told him she was involved in any way.

Then, the defense showed jurors the interview Monserrate Shirley had done with the media in the days after the explosion, where she spoke about boarding her cat, and changing the thermostat in the home.

She denied involvement in the explosion in the interviews, as well.

HEARING FROM THE LEAD DETECTIVE

All morning Thursday, jurors heard from the lead detective in the case, IMPD Detective Jeff Wager.

He took jurors through his investigation, explaining all that he and other detectives did in the days after the explosion, all the interviews, all the places they went, leading up to the day on December 21, 2012, when Mark Leonard, Bob Leonard and Monserrate Shirley were arrested.

The jurors also saw for the first time, mugshots of the five suspects in the case, including Gary Thompson and Glenn Hults, who were arrested in 2015.

Detective Wager also told jurors that the origin and cause of the fire didn’t affect what he was doing. He said he felt he had enough evidence to make arrests, even if it would have been an undetermined finding as far as the cause of the fire.

The defense questioned the detective for some time, focusing on Monserrate Shirley, Leonard’s ex-girlfriend, who took a plea agreement with the state. They asked specific questions about Shirley’s plea deal, and also drawing specific attention to Shirley’s statement that Leonard told her he’d thrown away a step-down valve.

That seems to be essentially a mixture of two important items in the case: a step-down regulator and the fireplace valve.

Prosecutors say the regulator was removed from the gas system at Monserrate Shirley’s home before the explosion. That regulates the pressure of gas into the home. Investigators say the valve controlling the gas to the fireplace was removed before the explosion as well, allowing natural gas equal to three tons of TNT to fill the home before it exploded.

The defense said Shirley had never mentioned a valve in other statements before the deposition with them in April.

Prosecutors asked the detective, would it be fair to say if she says she didn’t even know what that was, it may not be something material she felt important.

Prosecutors say Shirley’s home was filled with gas by removing a key piece of the gas system, and the valve on the log lighter fireplace.

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