Commonwealth v. Fears

Decision Date18 May 2021
Docket NumberNo. 781 CAP,781 CAP
Citation250 A.3d 1180
Parties COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Leroy FEARS, Appellant
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Mr. Leroy Fears, Pro Se.

Ronald Eisenberg, Esq., Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, Rushen R. Pettit, Esq., Paul R. Scholle, Esq., Michael Wayne Streily, Esq., Allegheny County District Attorney's Office, for Appellee.

ORDER

PER CURIAM

AND NOW, this 18th day of May, 2021, the order of the court of common pleas is affirmed by operation of law, as the votes among the participating Justices are equally divided. Appellant's ancillary application for sua sponte judgment, application to clarify prayer for relief, application to supplement Appellant's claim regarding the death penalty's constitutionality, application for post-submission communication pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 2801(a) (sic), application for post-submission communication to strike Appellee's response brief, and motion for leave of court are denied as moot.

Chief Justice Baer and Justices Saylor and Todd did not participate in the consideration or decision of this matter.

OPINION IN SUPPORT OF AFFIRMANCE

JUSTICE MUNDY

In this capital case, Appellant Leroy Fears appeals from an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County denying relief pursuant to the Post-Conviction Relief Act, 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 9541 - 9546 ("PCRA"). We consider whether the circulation of inappropriate emails by former members of this Court during the consideration of Appellant's direct and post-conviction appeals constitutes a deprivation of Appellant's constitutional rights. We conclude it does not.

I. Background

On December 8, 1994, Appellant pled guilty to one count of first-degree murder, one count of corruption of minors, and two counts each of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and abuse of a corpse. A penalty hearing was conducted on February 2, 1995, at the conclusion of which Appellant was sentenced to death. Appellant appealed his sentence for reasons unrelated to his current petition. In 2004, this Court affirmed his judgment of sentence. Commonwealth v. Fears , 575 Pa. 281, 836 A.2d 52, 56-58 (2004), cert. denied , 545 U.S. 1141, 125 S.Ct. 2956, 162 L.Ed.2d 891 (2005).

Subsequently, Appellant filed his first counseled petition pursuant to the PCRA. Appellant set forth claims regarding, inter alia , trial counsel's ineffectiveness, the voluntariness of Appellant's jury trial waiver, and violations of his due process rights. See Commonwealth v. Fears , 624 Pa. 446, 86 A.3d 795 (2014). The PCRA court denied Appellant's claims, and he appealed. This Court denied Appellant's requested relief on February 19, 2014. Relevantly, Justice Eakin authored the majority opinion, and was joined by Justices Baer, Todd, McCaffery, and Stevens.1

Following the conclusion of Appellant's direct and collateral appeals, news accounts revealed that Justice Seamus McCaffery was involved in circulating inappropriate emails with members of the Office of the Attorney General ("OAG").2 The emails were discovered during an investigation conducted by former Attorney General Kathleen Kane regarding an unrelated matter. The emails sent and received by then-Justice McCaffery included images that contained demeaning portrayals of various segments of the population, in addition to emails comprised of crude language on sensitive subject matters. Justice McCaffery retired from his service on this Court in October 2014.

Thereafter, Justice Michael Eakin was implicated in the scandal. In October 2015, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that media outlets had come into possession of multiple emails from Justice Eakin's private email account. The emails had been in the possession of the OAG, which obtained them when they were sent to the official email addresses of several OAG employees with whom Justice Eakin communicated informally.3 The Inquirer detailed the content of several of the emails, many of which referenced race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or class.4 An October 30, 2015 report by the Special Counsel further described many of the emails. Report of the Special Counsel Regarding the Review of Justice Eakin's Personal Email Communications, Joseph A. Del Sole, Oct. 30, 2015. It specified that Justice Eakin did not send many of the racist or discriminatory emails, although he received a substantial number of them. Id . at 13. The emails that originated from Justice Eakin were characterized as "insensitive, chauvinistic and offensive to women." Id . The Special Counsel included in its report that the emails were repugnant in the eyes of the public. Id . at 24.

On February 8, 2016, Appellant filed the current PCRA petition, his second.5 Appellant claimed Justice Eakin's emails demonstrated judicial bias, asserting they mocked minorities, victims of sexual abuse, and those involved with the criminal justice system, as well as containing homophobic content. Petition, 2/08/2016, at 15-18. Appellant alleged the emails directly related to Justice Eakin's ability to fairly adjudicate his case since Appellant, who is African-American, was sexually abused as a child. Id . at 16.

After filing his initial, counseled petition, Appellant wished to temporarily suspend his representation and proceed pro se . Following a hearing, the PCRA court determined Appellant adequately waived his right to representation and appointed Attorney Michael Machen as standby counsel. Hearing, 6/19/2018, at 9.

Appellant proceeded to file a series of amended petitions. In his first amended petition, he alleged Justice Eakin demonstrated an unconstitutional bias against groups with which Appellant identified through Justice Eakin's failure to actively participate in the Attorney General's investigation. Amended Petition, 7/31/18, at 2-6. Approximately one month later, Appellant again amended his petition to include the same claims of judicial bias against Justice McCaffery. Amended Petition, 9/21/18, at 2-7. As a result of Justice Eakin and Justice McCaffery's actions, Appellant argued the panel deciding his direct appeal and first amended PCRA petition was imbued with an insurmountable structural defect, which rendered these proceedings fundamentally unfair. Id . at 22 (citing Johnson v. United States , 520 U.S. 461, 117 S.Ct. 1544, 137 L.Ed.2d 718 (1997) ). Thus, Appellant alleged the proceedings violated his state and federal constitutional right to due process. Id . at 20 (citing Tumey v. Ohio , 273 U.S. 510, 532, 47 S.Ct. 437, 71 L.Ed. 749 (1927) ).

Lastly, in a document Appellant labeled as a supplement to his petition, Appellant argued the constitutionality of the death penalty under Pennsylvania law. Supplemental Petition, 8/17/18, at 2. Specifically, Appellant cited to the findings contained in the Joint State Government Commission's Report ("JSGC Report") to argue the death penalty violated Article I, Section 13 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Id . at 11-34. As a result of the aforementioned arguments, Appellant's requested relief included, inter alia , the vacatur of his guilty plea and death sentence, and an order for a new trial and/or sentencing proceeding. Id . at 23. In acknowledgment of his facially untimely petition, Appellant alleged both avenues of relief relied on newly discovered facts, and thus qualified under the same exception to the PCRA's timeliness requirement. Id . at 12 (citing 42 Pa.C.S. § 9545(b)(1)(ii) ).6

On October 1, 2018, the Commonwealth filed an answer to the petition, conceding the timeliness of Appellant's pleading, but refuting his claim of judicial bias. Specifically, the Commonwealth argued the Court of Judicial Discipline found that Justice Eakin's actions did not prejudice the administration of justice in any of the cases with which he was involved, and thus could not form the basis of a judicial bias claim. Commonwealth Answer at 13 (citing In re Eakin , 150 A.3d 1042 (Pa. Ct. Jus. Disc. 2016) ). It pointed out Justice Eakin was one of a number of justices to participate in the resolution of Appellant's case, and was joined by others in his majority opinion regarding Appellant's first PCRA petition. Id . at 14. Lastly, the Commonwealth asserted Justice Eakin's involvement was mainly limited to receiving emails, which does not per se establish the presence of bias. Id . (citing Commonwealth v. Shannon , 184 A.3d 1010 (Pa. Super. 2018) ).

On March 29, 2019, the PCRA court filed a notice of its intention to dismiss Appellant's PCRA petition without an evidentiary hearing pursuant to Pa.R.C.P. 907. Appellant filed a response to the court's notice, which was subsequently denied. The PCRA court dismissed Appellant's petition on May 16, 2019. Appellant filed a timely notice of appeal to this Court. In his concise statement, which Appellant filed on August 7, 2019, he raised the following claims verbatim :

1. This court has jurisdiction under 42 Pa.C.S. § 9545(b)(1) to address the substance of my claims.
2. My judicial bias claim was timely under 42 Pa.C.S. § 9545(b)(1). This court's summary dismissal of my amended and supplemental petitions without a hearing violated my due process and equal protection rights where my claim was first filed within 60-days of when the facts supporting the claim were publically [sic] revealed in the Judicial Conduct Board complaint filed against Justice Eakin. In re J. Eakin , 13 JD 2015 .
3. My judicial bias claim based on the email scandal was not frivolous. Justice Eakin was a party to emails which revels [sic] an inappropriate bias against African American person, gay persons, victims of domestic violence and persons involved in the criminal justice system. As a result, I did not receive a fair adjudication of my direct and post-conviction appeals, in violation of the Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and Article 1, §§ 9 & 13 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
4. My judicial bias claim is based on the Join [sic] State Government Commission's report
...

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