Richmond Hill explosion suspects could get concurrent trials

Bob Leonard

Three suspects in the Richmond Hill explosion returned to court Wednesday to prepare for separate trials set to start in six months. However, to save time and money, the prosecutor is offering up another proposal. He wants to try Mark Leonard, Monserrate Shirley and Bob Leonard for murder and arson all at once.

The defendants' faces and alleged crimes are familiar, but their trials could be totally unfamiliar to Marion County's justice system.

Three separate trials, as the judge has ordered, but if prosecutors get their way the trials will be held at the same time.  So-called concurrent trials, deputy prosecutor Denise Robinson explained, have occurred in other states. 

"We checked into the reported decisions from those states as well as the US Supreme Court and it is deemed to be constitutional in those states," Robinson said.

Three different defendants would receive three separate trials, at the same time, in the same court room with the same judge, and with a few exceptions the same witnesses. 

However, there would be three separate juries.  Each would be given separate instructions, opening and closing statements and have separate deliberations.

Prosecutors insist the plan protects the defendants' constitutional rights while saving the court system time and money. 

Robinson explained, "With the large number of witnesses and large amount of evidence we would be incurring, the cost [would be] only once as opposed to three times."

The three are accused of blowing up Shirley's home to collect the insurance money.  The horrific blast killed two people, and destroyed or damaged 130 homes.  Each defendant faces dozens of charges including murder and arson.

Prosecutors have 250 witnesses and more than a thousand pieces of evidence. They estimate separate trials would take six weeks each, concurrent trials about two months.

"There is so much room for a mistake to happen," said law professor Novella Nedeff. She teaches criminal defense and trial practice at the IU School of Law and calls the prosecutors' plan frightening.

"This might be saving one-third of the number of trials, the changes for a mistrial are 100-fold more than any other trial," she explained.

That's because in the same court room  there will be evidence and testimony allowed in one trial but not allowed to be heard by juries of the other trials. There are also logistical issues.  With three legal teams and 48 jurors and alternates, the trial would have to be held in an auditorium. The judge expects to rule on the concurrent trials after the new year.  Trials are scheduled to begin in mid-June.