- Associated Press - Friday, June 5, 2015

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - Jury selection picked up pace Friday in the trial of an Indianapolis man charged in a deadly house explosion, a day after a judge dismissed 56 prospective jurors who expressed doubts that they could be impartial.

Sixteen people were picked for 18 jury spots by the time Friday’s court session ended for Mark Leonard’s trial, which was moved to South Bend because of extensive publicity in Indianapolis. He is charged with murder, arson and other counts in the November 2012 blast that killed two people and damaged or destroyed about 80 homes.

Prosecutors say Leonard was the mastermind of a plot to blow up a house belonging to his then-girlfriend, Monserrate Shirley, and collect insurance money to pay mounting debts. He is one of five people charged in the case.

Work is expected to resume Monday on selecting the final two members for the panel of 12 jurors and six alternates, after which opening statements could be made and the first witnesses called.

St. Joseph Superior Court Judge John Marnocha on Friday admonished defense attorney Diane Black for her decision on Thursday to introduce allegations that Leonard tried to hire a hit man to kill a witness in the case, The Indianapolis Star reported (https://indy.st/1dSuKP8 ).

Many in Thursday’s jury pool who had initially indicated they could be impartial had a change of heart after Black’s statement.

Marnocha said Black’s introduction of the hit man allegations was “improper.” But the attorney said outside the courtroom that she wanted to show that the allegations, which she’s fought to keep out of the trial, are prejudicial to her client. She said her actions also could preserve an avenue for a possible appeal if Leonard is convicted.

Prosecutors say they want the allegations included at trial.

So far, Marnocha has agreed with the prosecution, saying that just because evidence is damaging to Black’s client doesn’t mean it should be withheld from jurors.

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