Fourteen potential jurors excused during jury selection for Richmond Hill trial

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Sketch of Mark Leonard (left) and Defense Attorney David Shircliff in court. (Sketch by Dave Blodgett)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (June 4, 2015)– An attorney for lead Richmond Hill co-conspirator Mark Leonard stunned a South Bend courtroom by telling potential jurors that her client faces charges of trying to kill a witness in his case.

“I’ve known Mark Leonard for two and a half years,” said Diane Black, “and I learned that he called from jail to try to have a witness killed? ‘How am I going to help you?'” she recalled asking. “What does it mean when someone tries to hire a hit man in a case?”

“It sounds really bad to me,” answered one potential juror.

“It sounded really bad to me,” said Black, “and I’m his attorney.”

Black’s opening gambit laid bare a complicating factor defense attorneys unsuccessfully sought to seperate from Leonard’s Richmond Hill charges.

The revelation was delivered in a slow measured tone that allowed Black’s words to sink in with the potential panel.

During a break while attorneys debate challenges to potential jurors, the formerly silent pool buzzed with conversation.

As a result, none of the first 14 candidates who were examined were chosen for the panel.

Fifty-six St. Joseph County residents were called to Judge John Marnocha’s courtroom to potentially sit on a jury to weigh the fate of lead Richmond Hill defendant Mark Leonard.

Leonard is accused of concocting the conspiracy that led to the destruction of girlfriend Monserrate Shirley’s house in an intentional natural gas explosion on November 10, 2012.

The explosion killed neighbors Dion and Jennifer Longworth, who died when the blast caused their house to catch fire before collapsing. Eighty residences were destroyed or damaged, with losses totaling more than $4 million.

Leonard faces 53 counts including murder, arson and conspiracy.

Shirley and three other men face similar charges.

Judge Marnocha told the jury pool, “You become the actual judge of the case,” and, “I am listening to the full trial for the first time like you.”

There was a visible non-verbal response from many in the pool when the court indicated that the trial may last as long as six weeks thereby asking jurors to put their lives on hold.

When the judge asked if pre-trial publicity led some potential jurors to reach a conclusion about Leonard’s guilt or innocence, a couple hands were raised.

Judge John Marnocha

Judge John Marnocha

Judge Marnocha then called the attorneys to his bench and announced he would delve into those pre-conceived opinions later during the session.

Leonard appeared in court for the first time in a white shirt, striped tie and khaki pants. Sheriff’s deputies removed his handcuffs, belly chains and ankle shackles, before the jury pool was shown into the courtroom.

He rose and looked at potential jurors when so instructed by the judge.

Deputy Prosecutor Denise Robinson began the State’s examination of the first 14 potential jurors by reminding them that despite what they’ve seen on TV, no one in Judge Marnocha’s courtroom was an actor.

Robinson led the pool through a criminal justice tutorial, explaining the difference between a defendant “knowingly” or “intentionally” committing a murder.

The State contends Leonard and his co-conspirators should have known that setting off a massive explosion in an insurance fraud scheme would result in the death of their neighbors.

Robinson explained that intentions can be betrayed by results that were a byproduct but the perpetrators should have known there was a risk of unintended results.

“Knowingly” planning and committing a crime, said Robinson, is to act with a high probability that the plot might spin out of control. “Intentionally”, said the prosecutor, is acting with a conscious objective.

Robinson explained that in Indiana the murder counts leveled against Leonard allege that he knowingly committed an act that a reasonable person might assume could lead to unintended death.

Presaging testimony of co-defendant Monserrate Shirley, Robinson asked potential jurors if they would have a hard time believing the credibility of a fellow conspirator who agreed to work with prosecutors in exchange for a lighter sentence.

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