13 Investigates: Richmond Hill suspect claims investigators illegally coerced statements

Two people died in the November 2012 explosion in Richmond Hill.
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One suspect in the Richmond Hill explosion case said investigators illegally coerced his statements shortly after the blast, and now his attorneys want those comments excluded from the trial.

Bob Leonard said in the days after the November 2012 explosion, investigators used “psychological and mental coercion” to elicit his statements.

Now, 13 Investigates has learned his attorneys want those statements and a long list of other possible evidence and testimony excluded from his trial. The requests came in a flurry of motions filed in the last few weeks.

Another request from Leonard’s attorneys would essentially turn his case into two trials – one to address the murder charges and another to address the arson charges.

Bob Leonard, his brother Mark and Mark’s girlfriend Monserrate Shirley are accused of blowing up her home as part of an insurance fraud plot.

The gas explosion in the Richmond Hill subdivision on November 10, 2012, killed two neighbors, destroyed more than 30 homes and damaged dozens more.

Accusations of coerced statements

In a court filing just made public, Leonard said about 10 days after the blast, investigators from the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and an attorney from the Marion County Prosecutor’s office questioned him.

Bob Leonard claimed they did not correctly or fully advise him of his rights in custody, such as the right to remain silent. He also said the investigators promised leniency if he made incriminating statements but did not fulfill those promises. He said investigators inferred that they would not file charges against him and/or that the number and severity of the charges would be limited.

Leonard’s attorneys claim that investigators violated his four, fifth, six and fourteenth amendment rights.

Prosecutors have until Aug. 22 to respond to the motion to suppress Leonard's statements, and Marion County Judge Shelia Carlisle scheduled a hearing on the topic for September.

Request to divide trial

Bob Leonard faces nearly 50 charges of arson, murder, and insurance fraud. His attorneys and attorneys for his brother, Mark, want to divide the trial into phases, because they believe evidence prosecutors will likely show to prove their murder case will prejudice jurors toward a guilty verdict on the other charges.

The attorneys want jurors to first use scientific evidence to let jurors decide whether the defendant knowingly committed arson before they see potentially gruesome evidence designed to convince them of culpability.

In their motion to bifurcate, or divide the case, Leonard’s attorneys wrote: “The risk that the jurors will be swayed and therefore inherently prejudice against [Bob Leonard] by sympathies due to the particularly gruesome and extensive nature of the deaths and damages in this Case, the extensive media coverage the Case has and will continue to receive, and the number of home owners that will likely testify is high; therefore, it is important that jurors be permitted to determine, first, as a threshold issue whether the arson… was the result of an intentional act…”

Crime scene photos and video

Bob Leonard’s attorneys said they are concerned that “gory and gruesome” images of the crime scene and the autopsies may “inflame” jurors against their client. They want to limit how many and which images jurors see, saying many of them have no probative value for this case, especially since the identities of the victims and the cause of death is not at issue.

Witness and expert testimony

Attorneys for both Bob and Mark Leonard are trying to limit the number of witnesses, specifically the number of neighbors, who will be allowed to take the stand to detail their losses and recount the trauma during and after the explosion.

Counsel for both men say their client will stipulate to the physical injuries and the property damage, so there is no need to hear about the trauma over and over.

Some estimates put the number of expected witnesses at 100 or more, and Leonard’s attorneys say “the drumbeat repetition of this harm will invoke unfair sympathy, prejudicing Defendant and impugning any following conviction.”

The Leonards’ attorneys are also trying to limit testimony from the prosecution’s experts related to the cause of the explosion. The defense says that testimony is “not based on reliable scientific principles” and it might mislead the jury. The attorneys would like, at the very least, a hearing for the judge to consider that testimony before jurors hear it.

Prosecutors are also asking to limit certain testimony. They do not want any reference to prior gas leaks or odors in the Richmond Hill subdivision, to the after incident report the city’s emergency responders created to review its response to the explosion, or to any civil lawsuits filed by Richmond Hill residents.

Claims of past abuse

Prosecutors are asking the judge to forbid attorneys from making any reference to accusations by Shirley that she is a victim of long term abuse.

In a previous court filing, Shirley claimed that years of abuse by her father made her susceptible to Mark Leonard’s “controlling and manipulative behavior.” Prosecutors say that claim is not relevant and would serve only to win favor with jurors for Shirley.

Evidence of past troubles

Prosecutors said that if Bob Leonard’s attorneys bring up any evidence about their client’s character, the State has a long list of items it intends to use to rebut that evidence.

Prosecutors said they will bring up details about prior insurance fraud plots or other plans to defraud. According to the State, Bob was previously involved in schemes with fake or intentional car crashes and involving motorcycle thefts.

If given an opening, prosecutors also plan to bring up “prior scams and schemes to deceive women out of money, including but not limited to, those met on internet dating sites and women defrauded at casinos.”

Change of venue request

All three defendants have requested a change of venue due to publicity about the explosion. Bob Leonard also petitioned the court to sequester jurors during his trial. The judge will hold a hearing for each defendant when considering whether to have a change of venue.

Since the judge granted each defendant a separate trial, they will each have separate change of venue hearings, held in the order they are to be tried – Mark Leonard, Shirley and Bob Leonard. The hearings on Mark’s change of venue request are scheduled for the week of July 28.

Jury selection and instruction

Several of the requests filed by Bob Leonard’s attorneys involve selecting and instructing jurors, and most come as the result of what the defense said is the “extensive, universal and unprecedented coverage this matter has generated.”

Leonard’s attorneys have asked the judge to take the unusual step of questioning potential jurors one by one, where other jurors can not hear. They asked to sequester jurors in another location while each potential juror is questioned in the courtroom during voir dire, the jury selection phase of a trial.

Attorneys said they are concerned that jurors will not answer honestly about prejudices, knowledge of the case and other embarrassing issues if other potential jurors are listening. They contend that the standard group voir dire will make it “difficult if not impossible to select a fair and impartial jury.”

Attorneys for both Bob Leonard and Monserrate Shirley submitted suggested questions for jury selection, but those questions are sealed for now.

Typically, attorneys are given 10 preemptive strikes when selecting a jury – 10 opportunities to dismiss jurors without having to specify a reason.

Attorneys asked the court to increase that number and provide for 20 preemptive strikes because of the publicity.

Bob Leonard’s attorneys are also asking that jurors be sequestered during the trial.

Another set of filings in late June deal with suggested instructions for jurors when considering a punishment. Prosecutors have requested Life Without Parole, if the defendants are convicted of felony murder.

Bob Leonard’s attorneys want to make sure that jurors are told that mercy and mitigating circumstances can be a part of their consideration.

Specifically, they would like jurors to be told “In determining the law, you should consider that determinations in the direction of mercy do comport with the law.”

Prosecutors asked the judge to forbid attorneys from mentioning the possible punishment during the trial, so as not to influence jurors.

Request for bail

Investigators arrested the Leonard brothers and Shirley December 20, 2012, about six weeks after the explosion. All three have remained in jail without bond.

In October, the Court will consider Bob’s request for bail. That hearing is the first time the State will be required to lay out most of its case against him in court. Leonard’s attorneys said they don’t believe the prosecution’s case is that strong, and that the “defendant is entitled to bail unless the State can prove it is evident that Defendant committed the charged murder and that the presumption that the Defendant committed the charged murder is strong.”