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Chafee presses feds to return Pleau case to R.I.

Nearly two years after Jason Pleau shot, killed and robbed gas station manager David Main outside a Woonsocket bank, Gov. Lincoln Chafee '75 P'14 P'16 petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court in August to return Pleau to state custody. In federal custody since his arraignment in late May, Pleau is on track to stand trial against federal prosecutors who plan to seek the death penalty. No trial date has been set yet for Pleau, nor has the Supreme Court issued a decision on whether they will review the case.

The long history of the case began in September 2010 when Pleau shot Main outside of Citizens Bank in Woonsocket and took the victim's $12,542 in deposit money. Pleau had worked with two accomplices that day to track Main from the Shell station to the bank. Pleau then fled the scene, split the money and was found and arrested three days later in New York. In the two years following his arrest, a custody battle has been ongoing between the state and federal governments.

In his petition for a U.S. Supreme Court review of the case, Chafee cited a conflict between two federal laws - the Interstate Agreement on Detainers Act and the habeas corpus statute. According to the former, the federal government must request permission to take custody of an individual from the state. In an unusual move for a governor, Chafee denied the original request in June 2011. The conflict is a state's rights issue for Chafee, said Christine Hunsinger, his communications director. "If the state did not have the right to say no, the federal government would not ask," she said. Hunsinger stressed that Chafee's move was due to Rhode Island's opposition to the death penalty and not because of Chafee's personal convictions.

Though Chafee hopes to bring Pleau back into state custody, he is no longer facing state charges. Pleau was charged in state court as a probation violator in May 2011 and ordered to serve 18 years. Since then, the R.I. State Attorney General's office dismissed the murder case so it could proceed in federal court, said Amy Kempe, public information officer for R.I. Attorney General Peter Kilmartin.

Either the state or federal government could have prosecuted the case, said Jim Martin, spokesman for U.S. District Attorney Peter Neronha. After working together since the day of the shooting in 2010, both offices agreed that the federal government would be the best office to prosecute the case. The office of the U.S. District Attorney historically prosecutes cases involving bank robberies in order to protect federally insured banks, Martin said.

The Pleau case is unusual for numerous reasons, said Professor of Political Science and Public Policy Ross Cheit. The case has "a very tortured and complicated procedural history," Cheit said, citing decisions that were overturned by larger panels of judges. Though the media has portrayed the conflict as a fight over whether Pleau should receive the death penalty or not, it is really an argument over how to interpret two federal laws, he said. It is also unusual that the federal government is pursuing the death penalty after Pleau "agreed to life in prison," Cheit said, citing a 2011 letter from Pleau's public defender in regard to the original state charges. "What even makes it a federal case is ... (Main) was on his way to deposit money to a bank," Cheit said.

Chafee's decision to pursue the case was praised by activists, including the American Civil Liberties Union. In addition to supporting the governor's legal right to deny federal custody of Pleau, the ACLU believes "as a matter of policy that it is also the right thing to do," said Executive Director of the R.I. ACLU Steven Brown. The ACLU has long been opposed to the death penalty, in part because it is "enforced against racial minorities and the poor discriminatorily," Brown said. He added that this conflict of federal laws took on a lot more significance when prosecutors decided to "try and kill him."

"Retribution and vengeance is not something the government should be involved in," he said.


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