Justices affirm life sentences for Richmond Hill mastermind

The man convicted as the architect of a November 2012 home explosion that left two people dead and dozens of others injured will spend the rest of his life in prison after the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed his murder convictions and life without parole sentences on Tuesday.

All justices concurred with Justice Robert Rucker’s 20-page opinion affirming Mark Leonard’s convictions and sentences in the case of Mark Leonard v. State of Indiana, 71S00-1509-LW-539. The court heard arguments in September, more than a year after Leonard was sentenced to two terms of life without parole plus 75 years for his role in the deaths of Jennifer and Dion Longworth.

Leonard, along with his half-brother, Bob Leonard, and his then-girlfriend, Monserrate Shirley, orchestrated a natural gas explosion at Shirley’s home in the Richmond Hill subdivision on the city’s southeast side in an effort to collect insurance money. After pretrial publicity forced a change of venue to South Bend, Leonard was convicted of felony murder, arson and a slew of other charges and was sentenced to two sentences of life without parole plus 75 years, all to be served consecutively.

Leonard’s appeal went directly to the Supreme Court, where he claimed the evidence was not sufficient to sustain his murder convictions, arguing specifically that the state failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he knowingly killed the Longworths and the knowing element as to those victims.

But the court rejected that argument, with Rucker writing, “the jury could reasonably infer from the circumstances Leonard knew of the proximity between the two homes and that he knew the home next door was occupied, since he had lived with Shirley off and on for eleven months at the time of the explosion.” Further, Rucker wrote the evidence showed Leonard knowingly planned for the home’s destruction, advising Shirley to remove her valuables prior to the scheme and telling a friend, Mark Duckworth, that he planned to buy a Ferrari with the insurance money before the explosion even occurred.

The court also rejected Leonard’s interpretation of Indiana Code 35-41-2-2, which outlines the “knowing” mens rea. Leonard argued that because the identities of the victims were an element of his crime, and because the statute requires that the knowing mens rea apply to every element of the crime, the state was required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he knowingly killed both Jennifer and Dion Longworth.

“By contrast, taken to its logical conclusion Leonard’s argument would mean that someone who planted an explosive device under a car, set it on a timer, and walked away would not be held responsible if a passerby were fatally injured by the explosion because the person did not know who the victim would be,” Rucker wrote. “We are not persuaded the legislature intended such a result.”

Leonard further argued the state failed to prove he had intentionally burned Dion Longworth, as required to prove an aggravating circumstance under I.C. 35-50-2-9(b)(11).

But the state was required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt only one of the aggravating circumstances under I.C. 35-50-2-9(1), Rucker wrote, and the trial court found that three factors under that section were proven. Thus, any error in the trial court’s finding as to section (b)(11) would be harmless because Leonard did not challenge the other two aggravating factors, the justice wrote. However, the trial court did not err in finding that the state had proved the (b)(11) aggravator, he said.

Further, Leonard argued the trial court had abused its discretion in admitting his out-of-court statement as evidence. In the statement while he was in prison, Leonard told Robert Smith, a fellow inmate, that he wanted to have Duckworth killed for agreeing to serve as a state’s witness against him.

Smith, a police informant, sent a letter to law enforcement about Leonard’s plan to have Duckworth killed, and Leonard was then tricked into “hiring” special agent Jeremy Godsave as a hitman. When Leonard learned of the ruse, his counsel moved to suppress his conversations with Smith and Godsave, but the trail court denied that motion. Upon de novo review, the high court affirmed the admittance of the conversation as evidence.

Finally, the court rejected Leonard’s argument that Indiana’s life without parole sentencing statute is unconstitutional, dismissing his assertion that the case of Hurst v. Florida, 577 U.S. ___, 136 S. Ct. 616 (2016) requires the court to review its existing precedent on the issue.

A decision from the justices is also pending in Bob Leonard’s appeal, which the court heard in February. Like his half-brother, Bob Leonard is also facing life without parole in the case of Bob Leonard v. State of Indiana, 02S00-1604-LW-00185. 

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