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RI man spared possible death penalty prosecution

By Laura Crimaldi
Associated Press / October 13, 2011

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PROVIDENCE, R.I.—A man accused of fatally shooting a gas station manager outside a bank last September won't stand trial in federal court, where prosecutors were considering a death penalty prosecution, an appeals court ruled Thursday.

The U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, in a 2-1 decision, ruled in favor of shooting suspect Jason Pleau, saying Gov. Lincoln Chafee has the right to keep him in state custody. Chafee's June decision to keep Pleau in state custody made him the first governor to refuse a request from federal officials to hand over a prisoner.

Chafee, a first-term governor, called Pleau a "career criminal" but said he was gratified the court recognized the state's opposition to the death penalty.

"I am gratified that the 1st Circuit has recognized our state's right to refuse a federal request to transfer a prisoner for the purpose of exposing him to the death penalty -- a penalty long rejected by the people of Rhode Island," he said in a statement.

He added his involvement in the case is about protecting the state's sovereignty and not about Pleau as an individual. He also extended his condolences to the family of the man prosecutors say Pleau fatally shot, 49-year-old David Main.

Pleau's defense attorney David P. Hoose said he expects federal prosecutors will press for a review of the court's decision.

"We're happy that the Circuit Court viewed this the way that we did, and we think we got it right," Hoose said.

A spokesman for Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha said prosecutors are reviewing the opinion.

Judge Juan R. Torruella, writing for the majority, said once federal prosecutors sought Chafee's approval for Pleau's surrender under the Interstate Agreement on Detainers they could not back out just because he did not sign off on the request.

Judge Michael Boudin, who wrote the dissenting opinion, predicted the ruling would be appealed. He said the decision turned the state prison "a refuge against the federal courts."

"Congress would surely be surprised to be told that it had empowered a state governor to veto a federal court habeas writ ... because the governor opposed the penalty that might be imposed if a federal conviction resulted," he wrote.

Pleau has been at the center of a legal tug-of-war over whether he would stand trial in state or federal court on charges he fatally shot Main outside a Citizens Bank branch in Woonsocket on Sept. 20, 2010.

The dispute began after Chafee, an independent, refused a request from federal prosecutors to surrender Pleau so he could be arraigned in U.S. District Court in Providence. The fatal shooting took place at the threshold of a federally insured bank, giving federal authorities the jurisdiction to prosecute Pleau.

Chafee cited the state's long opposition to the death penalty in refusing the request. The state doesn't have the death penalty. Pleau, 33, has agreed to plead guilty to state murder charges and serve life in prison without parole.

After Chafee's denial, prosecutors asked U.S. District Court Judge William E. Smith to have Pleau surrendered. Smith sided with prosecutors, but Pleau's federal court arraignment was canceled after the appeals court sided with him and granted a temporary stay of the transfer order.

The case was argued before the three-judge panel on July 28.

On Aug. 2, the appeals panel granted Chafee's request to join the appeals case.

Pleau's attorneys had argued Chafee's decision constituted the final word on Pleau's custody because his action was made under a federal statute that puts states on equal footing as the federal government.

Defense attorney Robert B. Mann had argued the federal government does not have the authority to circumvent the decision Chafee made by using a different federal law to request the outcome it seeks. He said Thursday that he was "gratified" by the ruling.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Donald C. Lockhart had asserted Pleau hadn't proved he shouldn't stand trial in federal court.

Pleau was indicted along with two others in federal court last year in the shooting death of Main as he approached the bank to deposit receipts from the nearby Shell gas station where he worked.

Prosecutors say a masked Pleau chased and shot Main multiple times as he approached the bank. Officials say Pleau then made off with a bank deposit bag containing more than $12,000.

Pleau is serving an 18-year sentence in state prison for violating his probation in another case.

Federal prosecutors say Pleau -- along with co-defendants Jose A. Santiago and Kelley M. Lajoie, both of Springfield, Mass. -- hatched a plot to rob Main at least two days before the killing. They say Santiago drove the getaway car and Lajoie acted as a lookout.

The court has entered pleas of not guilty for Santiago and Lajoie.

Relatives of Main did not immediately return messages seeking comment Thursday.