R.I. aims to block death-penalty trial

Refuses to send defendant into federal court

By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / July 28, 2011

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A federal appeals court in Boston is scheduled to hear oral arguments today in an unprecedented case that tests a state’s refusal to turn over a murder defendant to federal authorities, to protect him from facing the death penalty.

Governor Lincoln D. Chafee has opposed a request by federal authorities that Rhode Island surrender Jason W. Pleau, who is charged in the September 2010 robbery and fatal shooting of a gas station clerk who was making a deposit at a bank in Woonsocket, R.I.

The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit is expected to hear the case today.

The US attorney for Rhode Island, Peter F. Neronha, charged Pleau and two codefendants with robbery resulting in murder because the crime occurred at a federally insured bank, giving him jurisdiction.

Federal law allows for the death penalty because the alleged crime involved murder as part of a separate crime, but Rhode Island state law does not allow for a death sentence.

Last month, Chafee refused an initial request to voluntarily turn Pleau over to federal authorities under the Interstate Agreement on Detainers Act, which governs transfer of a defendant from state to state, saying in a statement that he could not “in good conscience voluntarily expose a Rhode Island citizen to a potential death penalty prosecution.’’

Andrew Horwitz, associate dean of academic affairs at Roger Williams University School of Law and an active member of the Rhode Island legal community, said yesterday that the case is unique in that it is the first in which a governor refused to hand over a defendant under an interstate agreement. Under the agreement, the federal government is considered a state, and a governor can refuse to transfer a defendant for public policy reasons.

“His view, which I think is entirely legitimate, is that as our duly elected governor in a state that has clearly shown it opposes the death penalty, he has the right to make that decision,’’ said Horwitz. “I think it’s quite interesting he joined the fight.’’

As a result of the shooting, Pleau was convicted earlier this year in state court of violating parole on a previous case and was sentenced to 18 years in jail. He has offered to plead guilty to state charges related to the robbery and slaying and to accept a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Chafee has said he is confident Rhode Island’s justice system can handle the case.

But Neronha secured a US District Court order last month that he turn Pleau over to US authorities, citing federal supremacy. When Pleau’s attorneys appealed that order at the end of June, citing the governor’s initial refusal, Chafee decided to sign on to the appeal, saying in a statement that, “The state has a strong interest in ensuring the application of Rhode Island law to Rhode Island citizens in criminal matters occurring within the state of Rhode Island.’’

Chafee added: “That interest is particularly compelling where, as here, the transfer would expose a defendant to the death penalty, a punishment the state of Rhode Island and its citizens have long rejected as a matter of public policy.’’

Lawyers for Pleau argue in court documents that federal authorities initially requested that Pleau be surrendered under the Interstate Agreement on Detainers Act, which allowed Chafee to oppose the request if it violates his state’s public policy, and so they are bound by his refusal under that act.

Jim Martin, a spokesman for Neronha, citing the court proceedings, would say only that the federal government has jurisdiction and that a federal judge has signed an order that Pleau be turned over.

“This case is not about the death penalty,’’ Martin said. “This case is in this office because it’s what we do. We protect banks and their assets and the people who either work there or the customers who use it, and that’s what this case is about.’’

Martin would not say if his office is seeking the death penalty. That decision would be made by US Attorney General Eric Holder. An advisory committee for Holder will make a recommendation to him based on meetings earlier this week with lawyers for Neronha and Pleau.

According to federal court records, Pleau and two codefendants staked out a Shell gasoline station manager, David M. Main, a 49-year-old from Lincoln, as he prepared to make a $12,542 deposit at a Citizens Bank branch in Woonsocket.

Pleau, who was waiting in hiding near the bank, shot Main several times in the head before fleeing with the money.

Pleau’s codefendants are in custody awaiting trial on federal charges. Pleau was brought before state courts for parole violations; Chafee subsequently refused to hand him over.

Valencia can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MiltonValencia.