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Panel to weigh death penalty in southside explosion

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A decision is expected within six weeks on whether to seek the death penalty against the three people charged with causing the deadly gas explosion that devastated a southside neighborhood and killed a couple, a prosecutor said.

A death penalty review team made up of Marion County prosecutor’s office staff members will review the case and make a recommendation, Prosecutor Terry Curry said. Curry said he hoped to make that decision before a Feb. 12 court hearing.

Homeowner Monserrate Shirley; her boyfriend, Mark Leonard; and his brother, Bob Leonard, have been charged with murder, arson and conspiracy counts in the Nov. 10 blast that killed a couple living next to Shirley’s house.

Curry said he would talk with relatives of the explosion victims — 34-year-old John Dion Longworth and his wife, 36-year-old Jennifer Longworth — before making a decision. Jennifer Longworth was a school teacher in Greenwood.

“It is important that we share this with the families,” he said. “They need to know this can be a 12- to 20-year ordeal before they get closure.”

Prosecutors say Shirley and the Leonard brothers deliberately blew up Shirley’s home so they could collect the insurance payout. The blast destroyed five homes and damaged dozens of others in the Richmond Hill subdivision just north of County Line Road.

Shirley, 47, was facing mounting financial woes, including $63,000 in credit card debt and bankruptcy proceedings, court documents say. And a friend of Mark Leonard’s told investigators that Leonard said he had lost about $10,000 at a casino some three weeks before the explosion.

Shirley’s lawyer, Randall Cable, said he believed Shirley was “targeted” by investigators, and there shouldn’t be a rush to judgment.

“It seems to me they announced charges prematurely,” Cable said. “As I understand it, some of the evidence they have is still in the lab. It takes a long time for that stuff to come back.”

Richard Kammen, an Indianapolis defense attorney who has handled death penalty cases, said seeking the death penalty would make the prosecution more expensive.

“I suspect they would be tried separately,” Kammen said. “And then there is a good chance a change of venue could be sought. So we could have three trials in three counties. All that together would drive up the expenses extraordinarily.”

Three death penalty cases were filed statewide this year, one in 2011 and three in 2010. That compares with 26 death penalty case filings in 1990 and 22 in 1991, according to Indiana Supreme Court records.

Indiana law requires prosecutors seeking the death penalty or life in prison to cite at least one “aggravating factor,” such as multiple people killed in a crime or a murder happening during the commission of another crime.

“We will be taking an in-depth look into the case itself but also the profiles of those charged,” Curry said. “The decision will be based on facts and not public opinion or notoriety.

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