INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) - Two of the three defendants charged in connection with a house explosion on Indianapolis' south side last year have asked for their trials to be held separately. One also plans to object to the prosecution's request for a life-without parole sentence.
Attorneys for Monserrate Shirley, owner of the home where the explosion occurred, and her boyfriend, Mark Leonard, both announced during court appearances Wednesday that they plan to file motions of severance, that would allow their clients to be tried independently. Currently, both are listed as co-defendants with Leonard's brother Bob Leonard, Jr.
Neither Shirley's attorney Jim Voyles or Mark Leonard's Public Defender Deana Martin would comment on the filings after court adjourned, but prosecutors said they will object to the motions.
"There are legal grounds for severance. But, it is our position that the defendants should be tried jointly because it's our allegation they acted together. So, they should be tried together," said Marion County Deputy Prosecutor Denise Robinson.
Robinson said separate trials could make prosecution of the cases more difficult.
"Obviously, separately means we bring back witnesses to testify in three different trials. It means, logistically, our schedule has to allow for three separate trials. On the other hand, there are a number of legal issues that have to be carefully addressed when you're trying them jointly," she said.
SEEKING LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE
Each of the suspects was initially charged with two counts of murder and dozens of arson charges for the November blast caused by ignition of natural gas that killed two neighbors, Dion and Jennifer Longworth, and irreparably damaged dozens of homes.
Last week, Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry announced he would not seek the death penalty against the three defendants, and would instead seek life-without-parole sentences . Richmond Hill residents who attended Wednesday's hearing were seen consoling each other as Judge Sheila Carlisle read the sentencing request.
If the three are convicted of murder, the state must also prove aggravating circumstances in order to be granted a life-without parole sentence, Carlisle said. Prosecutor Terry Curry said in his initial filing that those aggravators would include the detonation of an explosive device and causing multiple deaths.
In court Wednesday, Voyles asked the judge for a 30 day extension to respond the state's sentencing request.
"We believe we have legal grounds to object, and we respectfully request a continuance," he told Carlisle, who granted the request for additional time.
NEW CHARGES, NEW OBJECTIONS
Prosecutors also filed motions to add new charges against the defendants last week. Each now faces an additional count of arson, a Class B felony, for damage to houses in the Richmond Hill subdivision that did not require demolition. Shirley has been charged with one count of insurance fraud, a Class C felony and an additional charge of conspiracy to commit insurance fraud, a class C felony, was added against Shirley and Mark.
Prosecutors allege that Shirley filed an insurance claim on the home two days after the explosion.
Bob Leonard and Shirley did not file legal objections to the additional charges, but Martin says she will file an objection on Mark Leonard's behalf objecting to the additional count of arson.
"We object on the basis of vagueness in the filing," Martin told the judge. She went on to say the charge does not cite specific properties that did not require demolition.
"If the judge wants more specificity, we can certainly do that," Robinson said. "We can charge all the homes with specificity by address that were damaged in the case. At this point we don't believe that's necessary. We believe they are certainly noticed as to what houses we are talking about."
Both Voyles and Martin also filed motions Wednesday asking for evidence at the Richmond Hill site related to the new arson charges be ordered to be preserved. Right now, those properties are under control of private insurance companies and Indianapolis Code Enforcement.
Carlisle said she would rule on that motion once she has received it in writing.
MEDIA BLACKOUT REQUEST
In addition to her objection to the additional arson charge, Martin filed a motion last Friday asking Judge Carlisle to "restrict media access" to Mark Leonard.
"There is a hallway where suspects are brought from the jail, and we would ask that any and all media not be allowed contact there," Martin told the judge.
"I believe that's a public hallway," responded Carlisle. "But, I'm unclear exactly what you're requesting."
Carlisle asked that Martin file a brief showing legal basis for her request within the next 30 days. She must also serve all media outlets with legal notice that her motion has been filed within one week. Once that occurs, Carlisle said she would rule on the motion.
TRIAL DATE CONTINUED
A request by Voyles and Martin for to move any potential trials against their clients out of Marion County due to media coverage of the case will be taken as a separate motion, Carlisle said. Prosecutors have objected to those filings. Carlisle would only say she would rule on the requests at a later date.
During the initial hearing for the suspects, Judge Sheila Carlisle set a preliminary trial date of March 4. All three sets of defense attorneys on Wednesday asked for more time.
Carlisle asked each team of attorneys to consult with each other and agree on three potential dates for the opening of the trial, ranking them from "best case scenario" to "worst case scenario."
Robinson said preparation for a "standard" murder case typically takes 9-12 months.
"And, this case is very complicated," she said. "We'll be ready when the defense is ready. That could be yet in 2013. But, I think realistically, we're looking at going into 2014."
All three defendants will appear in Judge Carlisle's court again on April 10.
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