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RI governor makes case before US appeals court

By Laura Crimaldi
Associated Press / April 4, 2012
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BOSTON—A lawyer for Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee asked a U.S. appeals court Wednesday to rule that he doesn't have to surrender state custody of an inmate who could potentially face the death penalty if tried and convicted in federal court.

The legal tug of war over Jason W. Pleau, 34, went back before the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, where a federal prosecutor argued the Woonsocket man should be handed over to federal authorities to stand trial in the fatal shooting of a gas station manager outside a bank.

Federal prosecutors have not said whether Pleau would face the death penalty if convicted of killing David Main, 49, in 2010. Rhode Island does not have the death penalty, and Chafee has said prosecutors want to try Pleau federally to make it a possible punishment.

Chafee, an independent, is believed to be the first governor to refuse to surrender a state inmate under a federal law governing the transfer of prisoners among states and the U.S. government. The National Governors Association and Council of State Governments have filed papers in court supporting Chafee.

Chafee's lawyer, Claire Richards, said the provision allowing governors to refuse to surrender inmates does not carve out exceptions in cases when federal authorities seek to take prisoners into custody. She said 47 states and the federal government are bound by the law, the Interstate Agreement on Detainers Act.

"The United States must comply with all the terms of the agreement," Richards said.

Chafee released a statement calling Pleau a "career criminal who deserves to answer for his crimes and spend the rest of his life in prison." He said his role in the case is about protecting Rhode Island's opposition to the death penalty by invoking his right to refuse to surrender Pleau.

"Although seldom exercised, that right is crucial to ensuring that a state's important public policy prerogatives are honored both by sister states and by the federal government," Chafee said. He also extended his condolences to the victim's family.

Main's relatives attended the hearing and spoke with U.S. Attorney Peter F. Neronha outside court. They declined to comment.

In June, Chafee 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.

Pleau and two co-defendants were indicted in federal court in 2010. Federal prosecutors say they hatched a plot to rob Main at least two days before the killing.

Main was shot as he approached the Woonsocket bank to deposit receipts from the nearby gas station where he worked. Prosecutors say Pleau was wearing a mask when he chased and shot Main several times. He's accused of making off with a bag containing more than $12,000.

Pleau's attorney Robert B. Mann said federal prosecutors could have gone a different route in seeking to take Pleau into custody but are now bound by their choice, which gives Chafee the authority to keep Pleau in state prison.

Lawyers for Pleau contend federal prosecutors are seeking to gut the law giving governors that discretion. They want Pleau to remain in state custody, where Pleau has offered to plead guilty to state murder charges and serve life in prison without parole.

If the appeals court rules against Pleau, his defense lawyers are asking the panel to delay his transfer to federal custody so he can appeal his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Pleau is serving an 18-year sentence in state prison for violating his probation in another case. One of his co-defendants pleaded guilty to robbery and other charges and is being sentenced in September; the other's case is pending.

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