Legal expert: Richmond Hill suspects using typical defense tactics

Monserrate Shirley, Mark Leonard, Bob Leonard

Newly released court documents are giving us a new look into the upcoming Richmond Hill trial. The explosion in November 2012 killed two people, put three people in jail and shattered the south side neighborhood.

One pre-trial motion claims police coerced statements from suspect Bob Leonard. Another wants to put limits on the number of witnesses, pictures and videos prosecutors show jurors. Prosecutors want to keep Monserrate Shirley from claiming she was abused as a child.

Motions filed by defense attorneys and prosecutors are giving us a glimpse of legal issues and strategies coming up in the trials of Mark Leonard, Bob Leonard and Monserrate Shirley.

All three defendants face roughly 50 counts of murder, arson and other felony crimes. Investigators claim they rigged Shirley's home to explode.

The blast killed two neighbors - Dion and Jennifer Longworth- and destroyed scores of homes in the Richmond Hill neighborhood.

The most concerning legal claim comes from Bob Leonard's attorneys. They want Leonard's statements to detectives kept out of court, saying he was physically and mentally coerced into talking to police and wasn't completely aware of his right keep silent.

It's significant, but it's also a typical defense tactic when a defendant talks to police.

"You look at that statement and look for any arguable issues to keep it out of court," said Novella Nedeff, IU School of Law.

Nedeff is an attorney and professor at the IU school of Law who's been practicing and teaching for 32 years. She calls the Richmond Hill case one of the most complicated she's seen.

"It's complicated, very complicated. Lots of moving legal pieces. A whole lot," she said.

A whole lot of pretrial motions just made public reveal the complications.

Bob Leonard's attorneys want prosecutors to first prove arson before presenting evidence of murder and other crimes to prevent jurors being prejudiced.

"Let's say the evidence is weak on both facets but the jury is so outraged by the cumulative effect they hold it against the defendant," said Nedeff.

To make their case, prosecutors expect to call 250 witnesses and use a thousand pieces of evidence. Defense attorneys want to reduce those numbers, exclude some testimony, photos and videos to prevent duplicate and cumulative evidence from inciting jurors - another standard legal request.

"We've got to remember the idea of court is to hold the right person responsible, not just somebody for the sake of punishing a great harm," said Nedeff.

The harm is so great that it has held the attention of police, prosecutors, and a city for more than a year and a half.

Judge Shelia Carlisle is scheduling hearings to rule on these and other motions. She's yet to decide if the three trials will be moved because of all the pretrial publicity.

Legal insiders believe the first trial probably won't take place until early next year. It's expected to last four to six weeks.