Commonwealth v. Fears

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Writing for the CourtChief Justice CAPPY.
Citation836 A.2d 52,575 Pa. 281
Decision Date20 November 2003
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Leroy FEARS, Appellant.

836 A.2d 52
575 Pa. 281

COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee
v.
Leroy FEARS, Appellant

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Argued March 3, 2003.

Decided November 20, 2003.


836 A.2d 56
Caroline Roberto, Pittsburgh, for Leroy Fears, Appellant

Rebecca Denean Spangler, Pittsburgh, Amy Zapp, Harrisburg, for the Com. of PA, Appellee.

Before: CAPPY, C.J., and CASTILLE, NIGRO, NEWMAN, SAYLOR, EAKIN and LAMB, JJ.

836 A.2d 53
836 A.2d 54

836 A.2d 55
OPINION

Chief Justice CAPPY.

This is a direct appeal from the judgment of sentence of death following the convictions of Appellant Leroy Fears for first degree murder,1 corruption of minors,2 two counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse3 and abuse of a corpse.4 For the reasons set forth herein, we affirm.5

The record, developed at the suppression hearing, guilty plea proceeding and sentencing hearing, reveals that, on June 18, 1994, twelve-year-old Shawn Hagan and thirteen-year-old James Naughton met with other teenagers and Appellant, age thirty-two, at a fishing hole on the Monongahela River. The day before, Appellant had paid Naughton to bring a bottle of his parent's vodka from his home. Appellant and the boys spent the day drinking, swimming and fishing. Appellant, Hagan and Naughton eventually separated from the other boys and continued to fish

836 A.2d 57
farther down the river. When it began to get dark, Naughton left the area and Hagan continued to swim

Upon coming to shore, Hagan removed his outer shorts to hang dry. Hagan sat down next to Appellant at which time Hagan's arm brushed Appellant. Appellant became aroused, told Hagan to stand, pulled Hagan's boxer shorts down, and performed oral sex on him. Appellant then asked Hagan what he was going to do about the incident. Hagan responded that he was going to tell his parents that Appellant had kidnapped him. Appellant then pushed Hagan to the ground, sat on top of him, and choked him for approximately five minutes. When Hagan stopped moving, Appellant removed his hands from Hagan's throat. Once Hagan started to revive and cough, Appellant choked him a second time for approximately ten minutes until Appellant was satisfied that Hagan was no longer alive. Appellant then rolled Hagan on to his stomach. Appellant again became aroused and performed anal sex on him. Appellant then placed Hagan's body in the river and kept watch for approximately twenty minutes. Appellant searched the riverbank, found a tire rim and tied it to Hagan's neck. He then swam Hagan's body out into the river where it sank below the surface.

On June 19, 1994, the City of Pittsburgh Police began an investigation into the disappearance of Hagan. They encountered Appellant while searching the area where Hagan had last been seen. Appellant offered to help the police and advised them that he was the last person to have seen Hagan. Appellant also told the officers that he was concerned that neighbors may suspect him in the disappearance because of a prior sexual contact he had with a young boy. After spending several hours with detectives, Appellant voluntarily agreed to accompany them to the Pittsburgh Police Detective Bureau.

In his initial statement, Appellant discussed fishing with Hagan, but did not admit to any criminal activity. As this was occurring, the police learned from another source that Appellant had paid Naughton to provide him with alcohol. Appellant overheard other officers discussing this information, and blurted out that he had given the boy money for vodka, but denied making the boys drink it. The detectives advised Appellant of his rights pursuant to Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966), and presented him with a pre-interrogation warning form. Appellant responded that he was willing to provide the police with a written statement, but that he would no longer speak with the officers. All questioning ceased. The police charged Appellant with corruption of minors and incarcerated him on that charge.

The following day, police discovered a boy's body in the Monongahela River, which was later identified as that of Shawn Hagan. The detectives sought to question Appellant and he exhibited a willingness to speak to them. Appellant was then transported from the Allegheny County Jail to the Pittsburgh Police Station and completed a pre-interrogation written waiver form. Appellant was orally advised of his Miranda rights, and executed another pre-interrogation written waiver form. When the detectives advised Appellant that they had discovered Hagan's body and could link him to his death, Appellant confessed to the murder. After the confession, Appellant took the detectives to the scene of the crime and explained how he committed the offense. He then agreed to provide a video-taped confession wherein he again relayed details regarding the manner of death.

836 A.2d 58
Appellant was thereafter charged with criminal homicide, corruption of minors, two counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse (IDSI) and abuse of a corpse. Appellant filed a motion to suppress his video-taped statement on the ground that it was involuntarily made. Following a suppression hearing, the trial court found that the video confession was given after at least two occasions where Appellant was Mirandized and waived his rights in written form and on tape. Notes of Testimony, Suppression Hearing, December 8, 1994, at 51. It further found that there were no promises made to Appellant and therefore the confession was completely voluntary. Id. at 52.

The court denied suppression and, on December 8, 1994, Appellant entered a plea of guilty to first-degree murder as well as to the remaining charges. He also noted his desire to proceed to sentencing without a jury. Following a colloquy that took place that same day, the trial court accepted Appellant's plea. The penalty proceeding was delayed so that a psychological evaluation of Appellant could be conducted.

A penalty hearing was conducted before the court on February 2, 1995. The trial court found that the aggravating circumstance of a killing committed while in perpetration of a felony, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(9), outweighed the catchall mitigating circumstance of evidence concerning the character and record of the defendant and the circumstances of the offense, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(e)(8),6 and sentenced Appellant to death. The court imposed consecutive sentences of ten to twenty years of incarceration for one count of IDSI, no further penalty on the second count of IDSI, one to three years of incarceration for abuse of corpse and one to two years of incarceration for corruption of minors.

On January 12, 1996, Appellant filed a pro se post-conviction petition, wherein he alleged the ineffectiveness of trial counsel. On April 16, 1999, the Commonwealth filed a motion requesting certification of the death sentence for appellate review, which the court granted. On April 21, 1999, Appellant filed a reply wherein he requested that his appellate rights be reinstated. The trial court vacated its April 19, 1999 order certifying the case for appellate review and reinstated Appellant's appellate rights. Counsel was subsequently appointed. On June 4, 1999, Appellant filed a notice of appeal and thereafter requested an evidentiary hearing on the issues of ineffective assistance of counsel. Evidentiary hearings were conducted and the trial court denied relief. A concise statement of matters complained of on appeal was filed on September 12, 2001, and the trial court opinion was issued on June 4, 2002. This appeal follows.

As in all cases where the death penalty has been imposed, we first must conduct an independent review of the sufficiency of the evidence. Commonwealth v. Zettlemoyer, 500 Pa. 16, 454 A.2d 937, 942 n. 3 (1982), cert. denied, 461 U.S. 970, 103 S.Ct. 2444, 77 L.Ed.2d 1327 (1983), reh'g denied, 463 U.S. 1236, 104 S.Ct. 31, 77 L.Ed.2d 1452 (1983). In reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence, we must determine whether the evidence admitted at trial, and all reasonable inferences drawn from that evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as verdict winner, was sufficient to enable the fact finder to conclude that the Commonwealth

836 A.2d 59
established all of the elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. Commonwealth v. Ockenhouse, 562 Pa. 481, 756 A.2d 1130, 1135 (2000). This standard is applicable in cases where the evidence is circumstantial, as long as the evidence implicates the accused in the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Id.

A criminal homicide constitutes murder of the first degree when it is committed by an intentional killing. 18 Pa. C.S. § 2502(a). An intentional killing is a killing "by means of poison, or by lying in wait, or by another kind of willful, deliberate and premeditated killing." Id. The willful, deliberate, and premeditated intent to kill is the element that is unique and distinguishes first degree murder from other degrees of murder. Commonwealth v. Wilson, 543 Pa. 429, 672 A.2d 293, 297 (1996). The evidence presented at the suppression hearing and summarized by the Commonwealth at the guilty plea colloquy demonstrates that Appellant intentionally choked the twelve-year old victim after sexually assaulting him. When the boy began to show signs of life a few moments later, Appellant again choked him for approximately ten minutes until he was certain that the child was dead. These criminal acts are clearly sufficient to establish murder of the first degree.

We now proceed to address the claims raised by Appellant on appeal. Initially, we note that some of Appellant's claims allege ineffective assistance of counsel. This Court recently abrogated the procedural rule requiring new counsel to raise claims of previous counsel's ineffectiveness at the first opportunity when new counsel was appointed. Commonwealth v. Grant, 572 Pa. 48, 813 A.2d 726 (2002). In Grant, we announced a new general rule...

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78 practice notes
  • Com. v. Collins
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • December 27, 2005
    ...and his friends. 25. The concurring and dissenting opinion makes much of the fact that we have failed to discuss Commonwealth v. Fears, 575 Pa. 281, 836 A.2d 52 (2003), in analyzing the instant issue. Furthermore, it believes that our decision in Fears is dispositive of Appellant's With all......
  • Commonwealth v. Champney
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • April 24, 2013
    ...McNeil v. Wisconsin, 501 U.S. 171, 178, 111 S.Ct. 2204, 115 L.Ed.2d 158 (1991) (emphasis omitted); see also Commonwealth v. Fears, 575 Pa. 281, 836 A.2d 52, 61 (2003) (quoting McNeil 's holding in this regard). If the accused makes an ambiguous or equivocal reference that would lead an offi......
  • Com. v. Flanagan
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • July 23, 2004
    ...as a basis for relief only if the ineffectiveness caused the defendant to enter an unknowing or involuntary plea. Commonwealth v. Fears, 575 Pa. 281, 836 A.2d 52, 64 (2003); Commonwealth v. Frometa, 520 Pa. 552, 555 A.2d 92, 93 (1989); Commonwealth v. Jones, 477 Pa. 266, 383 A.2d 926 Becaus......
  • Com. v. Sattazahn, No. 509 CAP.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • July 24, 2008
    ...post-conviction petitioner to prove otherwise, and the obligation of a defendant to participate in the defense, see Commonwealth v. Fears, 575 Pa. 281, 316, 836 A.2d 52, 72 (2003) (explaining that "reasonableness in this context [of a penalty-phase investigation] depends, in critical part, ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
78 cases
  • Com. v. Collins
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • December 27, 2005
    ...and his friends. 25. The concurring and dissenting opinion makes much of the fact that we have failed to discuss Commonwealth v. Fears, 575 Pa. 281, 836 A.2d 52 (2003), in analyzing the instant issue. Furthermore, it believes that our decision in Fears is dispositive of Appellant's With all......
  • Commonwealth v. Champney
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • April 24, 2013
    ...McNeil v. Wisconsin, 501 U.S. 171, 178, 111 S.Ct. 2204, 115 L.Ed.2d 158 (1991) (emphasis omitted); see also Commonwealth v. Fears, 575 Pa. 281, 836 A.2d 52, 61 (2003) (quoting McNeil 's holding in this regard). If the accused makes an ambiguous or equivocal reference that would lead an offi......
  • Com. v. Flanagan
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • July 23, 2004
    ...as a basis for relief only if the ineffectiveness caused the defendant to enter an unknowing or involuntary plea. Commonwealth v. Fears, 575 Pa. 281, 836 A.2d 52, 64 (2003); Commonwealth v. Frometa, 520 Pa. 552, 555 A.2d 92, 93 (1989); Commonwealth v. Jones, 477 Pa. 266, 383 A.2d 926 Becaus......
  • Com. v. Sattazahn, No. 509 CAP.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • July 24, 2008
    ...post-conviction petitioner to prove otherwise, and the obligation of a defendant to participate in the defense, see Commonwealth v. Fears, 575 Pa. 281, 316, 836 A.2d 52, 72 (2003) (explaining that "reasonableness in this context [of a penalty-phase investigation] depends, in critical part, ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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