On warm summer days, the youth of Hazelwood play in the calm waters of Duck Hollow, on the Monongahela River. In anticipation of such a day, on June 17, 1994, Leroy Fears, a 32-year old resident of Hazelwood with a history of child sexual offending, paid 13-year old James Naughton to steal some alcohol from his parents and bring it to the river the next day.
Naughton, his 12-year old friend, Shawn Hagan, and other boys spent the afternoon of June 18 drinking, fishing, and swimming with Fears. Later that evening, after Shawn’s friends went home, he stayed with Fears. It was then that Fears raped him, before tying a tire rim around his neck and throwing him in the river.
When Shawn Hagan did not come home that evening, a search was launched. Police encountered Fears during their search. He was arrested based on his statements that he had been with the boys and had a record of child sexual offending.
After finding Hagan’s body in the river on June 21, police were able to elicit from Fears a videotaped confession and a reenactment of the crime. Fears was also linked to the murder through a DNA match.
So began an unusual five-month period in which five Allegheny County murders would ultimately result in capital convictions. In the background of this upsurge in capital prosecutions were the historic “tough on crime” elections of 1994, in which death penalty politics featured prominently; increasing executions and historic highs in death penalty support; and the enactment of the punitive and now controversial 1994 crime bill.
Not permitted to withdraw his confession, Fears, who was born to a twelve-year old mother, was sexually abused in foster care, and had been diagnosed with severe psychopathology, pleaded guilty at trial on December 8, 1994, in an effort to avoid a death sentence.
He was sentenced to death by Judge David Cercone on February 7, 1995.
Fears’ conviction and sentence were upheld on appeal (Commonwealth v. Fears, 575 Pa. 281, 2003) after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected a series of challenges to Fears’ conviction and death sentence. The admissibility of his confession, given without the presence of counsel, was upheld. Perhaps most notable in that decision were the court’s rejection of evidence of Fears’ severe mental illness and rejection of the argument that his counsel’s failure to press the issue of Fears’ competency violated his right to adequate counsel.
Leroy Fears remains in prison under a sentence of death. He is currently the longest serving Allegheny County death row inmate.