Judge dismisses 54 potential jurors in house explosion trial

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Jury selection in the trial of an Indianapolis man charged in a deadly 2012 house explosion got off to a rocky start Thursday when a judge dismissed the first 54 potential jurors following a defense attorney's revelation that the suspect is also accused of trying to hire a hit man to kill a witness.

Many potential jurors had initially indicated they would be able to give Mark Leonard a fair trial. But that changed after defense attorney Diane Black disclosed that Leonard is charged with trying to have a witness killed, The Indianapolis Star reported.

After that point, juror after juror said he would presume Leonard was guilty.

St. Joseph Superior Court Judge John Marnocha said proceedings will start fresh Friday with another 70 prospective jurors.

Black said she didn't bring up the hit man accusations to taint the jury pool.

"It's not a ploy. It's a legal issue," she said.

Marnocha promised to keep a tighter rein over the questioning Friday.

Opening statements are scheduled to begin Monday in the trial of Leonard, who faces two counts of murder and arson, conspiracy and insurance fraud counts. Prosecutors say he masterminded a scheme to blow up a house belonging to Monserrate Shirley, his girlfriend at the time, and collect $300,000 in insurance proceeds to pay off mounting gambling and credit card debts. Shirley, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy in the case, is expected to testify against Leonard.

Three other people also have been charged, including Leonard's half brother, Bob Leonard.

The November 2012 blast killed John "Dion" Longworth and his wife, Jennifer, who lived next door to Shirley, and damaged or destroyed about 80 homes.

Marnocha said Thursday that he will allow prosecutors to present an audio recording of John Longworth's screams after the blast.

Leonard's trial was moved to South Bend because of widespread publicity about the case in central Indiana. It's expected to last four to six weeks. Prosecutors have said they expect to present about 2,500 pieces of evidence and could call nearly 200 witnesses.

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