INDIANAPOLIS — Legal experts see potential problems with a prosecutor's proposal to hold a single trial before separate juries for the three people charged with causing a deadly explosion that devastated an Indianapolis neighborhood.
A judge has ordered separate trials for the three defendants, but Marion County deputy prosecutor Denise Robinson said Wednesday that doing them at once would save time and money. She estimates a combined trial could be done in two months, while separate trials could take six weeks each.
"The defendants' constitutional rights are still protected," Robinson said. "With the large number of witnesses and the large amount of evidence in this case, we would be incurring the cost only once instead of three times."
Homeowner Monserrate Shirley, her then-boyfriend Mark Leonard and his brother, Bob Leonard, face charges of murder and arson for the November 2012 explosion that killed two of her neighbors and wrecked dozens of houses in the Richmond Hill subdivision on the city's far south side.
Marion County Superior Court Judge Sheila Carlisle gave defense attorneys until Dec. 27 to file written responses to the proposal. The attorneys didn't comment after the court hearing Wednesday.
Indiana has rarely held trials with separate juries, but Robinson said that shouldn't be a determining factor.
"There are other states where this has been done, and we looked to those states for guidance before we ever filed the motion," she said.
Indiana University law professor Novella Nedeff said there was much room for mistakes.
"This might be saving one-third of the number of trials, the chances for a mistrial are 100-fold more than any other trial," Nedeff told WTHR-TV.
Authorities say Shirley and the Leonards rigged a natural gas explosion in Shirley's home in hopes of collecting insurance money. All three have pleaded not guilty.
Shirley's attorney has argued that she wasn't aware of the scheme and that she was a victim of Mark Leonard's manipulation and abuse. Mark Leonard claimed that his Sixth Amendment right to cross-examine his co-defendants would be violated if he wasn't tried separately.
Prosecutors estimate they have about 250 witnesses and more than a thousand pieces of evidence for trials, which are scheduled to begin in mid-June.
Jimmy Gurule, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame and a former prosecutor, told The Indianapolis Star he doesn't see the judge granting the combined trials request.
"I think the court would be reluctant to grant the motion in the absence of any explicit legal authority to do so," he said. "And I didn't see anything in the motion to justify the request."