Richmond Hill trial: Judge considering life without parole; decision by Aug. 14

Defense attorneys Diane Black and David Shircliff addressing the media after Mark Leonard was convicted on Tuesday (WTHR photo)
Richmond Hill trial: Mark Leonard found GUILTY on all counts
Richmond Hill trial: Mark Leonard found GUILTY on all counts

A decision is not expected to be handed down Wednesday regarding Mark Leonard's potential life without parole sentence.

With the jury gone and 53 guilty verdicts now hanging over him, Leonard walked into the courtroom in prison orange for the first time Wednesday for a hearing meant to establish if he is even eligible to be given life without parole.

Murder vs. Murder

The first question Judge John Marnocha raised was which murder counts prosecutors wanted to move forward with. While the jury convicted Leonard on four murder counts - two "felony murder" and two "knowing murder" - only two people died, so he can only be sentenced on two of those four counts.

Deputy Prosecutor Denise Robinson said they wanted to move forward with the "knowing murder" counts because, according to her own reading of the law, "felony murder" charges cannot produce life without parole sentences. She told reporters after court Wednesday they only included the two counts of "felony murder" on the chance that jurors did not convict Leonard on the "knowing murder" counts - a practice she said is common among prosecutors across the country.

With that established, prosecutors next had to convince Judge John Marnocha there were aggravating circumstances in this case. The aggravators they presented in court were:

  1. murder by unlawful detonation of an explosive with the intent to damage property
  2. Dion Longworth died after Jennifer Longworth, not at the same time in the same way
  3. Dion Longworth was burned or mutilated while he was still alive

Defense arguments

Lead defense attorney Diane Black argued Wednesday prosecutors never proved those aggravating circumstances.

Regarding the first, she argued Leonard was not present at the time of the explosion, so he could not have detonated it. She also returned to the defense's long-standing argument that the microwave was never submitted for testing and therefore never proven to be the cause of the explosion. Even if it had, the microwave's timer must be set within 24 hours and Leonard was shown to be at the casino for that entire period.

For the second aggravator, Black said Leonard would not only have needed to be responsible for both murders, but to have had clear separate intentions to kill each of the Longworths. She compared it someone holding a gun shooting a victim then deliberately and consciously turning to a second victim and also shooting them. Black argued Leonard only had one intention in this case - a small fire to collect insurance money.

On the third count, she said the burning or mutilation would have to be above and beyond the normal scope of the crime itself; that prosecutors would have to prove Leonard intentionally burned or mutilated Dion Longworth as a sadistic act (for example, as a form of torture to get information).

Black further argued that life without parole would end in disproportionate sentences between Leonard and Monserrate Shirley, which she claimed was inappropriate for co-conspirators in the same crime. She went so far as to argue prosecutors were guilty of sexism, saying they portrayed Shirley during trial as helpless to do anything but go along with the plot because she was a woman in love, and that's why she got the plea deal and Leonard did not.

Prosecutors told reporters after court that was not true - Leonard did not get a plea deal because he was the central figure in the entire conspiracy, not Shirley. Robinson also cited a 2012 case in which an appeals court ruled judges were allowed to hand down disproportionate sentences between co-defendents in the same crime.

What difference does it make?

If Leonard, now 46 years old, were to get the minimum sentence on every count and serve those sentences concurrently, he would be in prison for the next 45 years. If he were to be given the maximum sentence on every count and serve those sentences consecutively, it would be 1,488 years. The judge said in court that max sentence would not only be unrealistic, but would likely be overturned in an appeals court as an abuse of discretion on his part, so Leonard's actual sentence will likely be somewhere in between.

Life without parole is not normally the sentence for "knowing murder" (the crime Leonard was convicted of). Prosecutors had to ask for a sentencing enhancement that would allow it as a possibility.

So why ask for a sentencing enhancement when the normal sentence is effectively a life sentence already?

Deputy Prosecutor Denise Robinson admitted, "You can argue there's no distinction," but she said the sentence is about more than just this case. The prosecutor's office wanted to sent a message.

"The message is: if you take this action, we will seek life without parole....This type of conduct will not be tolerated."

Flipping the coin, why do the other sentences matter if Leonard gets sentenced to life without parole? Robinson explained that some "life without parole" statutes have been ruled unconstitutional in the past, so it is common practice among prosecutors across the country to still press for high prison sentences on top of life without parole as a form of insurance.

Normally, the matter of life without parole would be a decision for the jury, but Leonard on Tuesday waived his right to a jury in the sentencing phase, leaving the decision in John Marnocha's hands. He did not hand down his ruling immediately because when a judge is asked to rule in these situations instead of a jury, they are required to include specific legal and factual findings that explain and support their ruling, and that document will take time to put together.

Looking ahead

Leonard's final sentencing hearing is set for Friday, August 14 at 10:00 a.m. At that time, victims will have the chance to testify again regarding how the crime affected them. Judge John Marnocha will take those statements under advisement and hand down Leonard's sentence.

Judge Marnocha in court Wednesday started laying down ground rules for that hearing, saying that when he takes victim impact statements, he is very explicit with all those who testify that they are to address him regarding their experience. He does not see victim impact - in any case, not just this one - as a chance for those affected to chastise the defendant.

While August 14 is the day central Indiana learns the fate of Mark Leonard, Judge Marnocha said he would issue a written decision regarding just the life without parole petition sometime beforehand. He otherwise gave no indication for when he will release that decision.

Leonard will stay in St. Joseph County custody until the August 14 hearing.

Case background

Leonard is the now-convicted ringleader of the plot to destroy Monserrate Shirley's home to cash-in on the $300,000 insurance policy. The explosion killed two people, Dion and Jennifer Longworth, and did more than $4 million in damage, destroying more than 3 dozen homes and damaging more than 70 others.

Monserrate Shirley pleaded guilty to her charges in exchange for taking life without parole off the table. She will not be sentenced at all until all four of the other suspects have been tried. A judge will then sentence her to 20-50 years in prison and some or all of that could be suspended, meaning she could theoretically go home as soon as the other trials are complete.

Bob Leonard's trial has already been announced as the next in line. It will be held in Fort Wayne in January. Prosecutors have also asked for life without parole in his case.