R.I. tries to bar defendant transfer to US

Death penalty is at issue in case

By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / July 29, 2011

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A lawyer for Governor Lincoln D. Chafee of Rhode Island argued before a federal appeals court panel in Boston yesterday that the state had a right to refuse to turn over a defendant charged with murder to federal authorities, a move intended to protect the man from the death penalty.

“The governor exercised his discretion on a public policy basis and refused the request,’’ Claire Richards, Chafee’s chief legal officer, told the three-member panel of the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

“The governor has a right. . . . The state has a sovereignty right,’’ she said.

It is believed to be the first case testing a governor’s refusal to hand over a defendant under a decades-old Interstate Agreement Detainers Act, which allows for the US government to act like a state in the handing over of defendants.

But Donald Lockhart, a lawyer for Rhode Island US Attorney Peter Neronha, argued that the governor’s office has no standing in the case and that the US government was exercising its right to prosecute because the homicide occurred under its jurisdiction.

The defendant, Jason Wayne Pleau, is accused of shooting and killing 49-year-old gas station clerk David M. Main in September 2010 as Main was attempting to deposit more than $12,000 at a Citizens Bank branch in Woonsocket, R.I. The bank is federally insured, giving Neronha’s office jurisdiction, and the nature of the crimes allow for the death penalty.

Lockhart also asked the panel to expedite a decision on the case so that his office can move forward with the prosecution of Pleau, because “every month that goes by will hurt this case.’’

Main’s family didn’t comment outside the courtroom yesterday.

Pleau is serving 18 years in a Rhode Island prison for violating parole, and he has offered to plead guilty to murder in state court and accept a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, the toughest penalty under Rhode Island law.

However, Neronha’s office indicted Pleau and two codefendants in US court on charges of robbery resulting in murder, which could subject them to the death sentence.

Rhode Island law does not permit the death penalty. The two others are already in federal custody.

Neronha’s office has not said whether he will push for the death penalty. That determination must be made by US Attorney General Eric Holder. An advisory committee in Washington met with lawyers for Neronha and Pleau earlier this week and will make a recommendation to Holder.

But Chafee, citing his and the state’s opposition to the death penalty, has refused to turn Pleau over to US authorities, saying he is confident in the Rhode Island justice system.

Chafee refused the US government’s request to turn Pleau over under the Interstate Detainers Agreement Act in June.

Chafee argued that the act gives him the right to oppose a request based on public policy.

Neronha’s office then obtained a court order to have Plea surrendered under federal supremacy laws. But lawyers for Pleau appealed, citing Chafee’s initial denial.

Now Chafee has joined the appeal, saying he is acting to preserve the state’s sovereignty. Chafee and lawyers for Pleau argued before the appeals court that because US authorities initially requested that Pleau be handed over under the detainers act - which gave the US government the status as a state - they are now bound by that request, and with it the governor’s decision to oppose it.

“What they don’t have the right to do is get two bites at the apple,’’ said Robert B. Mann, a lawyer for Pleau.

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