PROVIDENCE â€” A federal appeals court ruled Monday that an inmate at the center of a legal tug-of-war between Gov. Lincoln Chafee and federal prosecutors may stand trial in federal court, where he faces a possible death penalty prosecution over a fatal robbery.
The 3-2 decision issued by the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston sided with federal prosecutors, saying the state prison would serve as â€śa refuge against federal chargesâ€ť if Jason W. Pleau were allowed to remain in the custody of Rhode Island authorities.
The custody battle over the 34-year-old Pleau goes back to June 2011, when Chafee, an independent, refused a request to surrender him to federal authorities. Chafee said prosecutors want to try Pleau federally to make the death penalty a possible punishment for allegations that he fatally shot a gas station manager outside a Woonsocket bank in 2010.
Rhode Island doesn't have the death penalty.
â€śWere Pleau and Governor Chafee to prevail, Pleau could be permanently immune from federal prosecution, and the use of the efficient detainer system badly compromised,â€ť wrote Circuit Judge Michael Boudin, who gave the majority opinion.
Federal prosecutors haven't said whether Pleau would face the death penalty if convicted of killing 49-year-old David Main. Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Peter F. Neronha said in a statement that his office is ready to move forward with the case.
Chafee issued a statement, calling the ruling a â€śclose vote.â€ť
â€śGiven the divided panel, the considerable states' rights issues involved, and the fact that a human life could be at stake, we will carefully evaluate all of our options,â€ť he said. An attorney for Pleau also said he is contemplating what to do next.
â€śWe're obviously disappointed but not shocked by the ruling,â€ť said attorney David P. Hoose.
Chafee 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.
Chafee's lawyer, Claire Richards, argued before the appeals panel last month that the provision allowing governors to refuse to surrender inmates doesn't 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.
Boudin wrote that it is improbable that Congress enacted that law to give governors the authority to keep prisoners out of the hands of federal authorities because they disagree with a punishment that inmates might face if convicted.
â€śOne can hardly imagine Congress, whether in approving the IAD or at any other time, empowering a state governor to veto a federal court habeas writ â€” designed to bring a federally indicted prisoner to federal court for trial on federal charges--because the governor opposed the federal penalty that might be imposed if a conviction followed,â€ť he wrote.
Judges Juan R. Torruella and O. Rogeriee Thompson dissented.
â€śThe equities of the case, even if they weighed in favor of the United States (and they do not), cannot justify the majority's result because this court has no authority to ignore the express terms of the IAD,â€ť Torruella wrote.
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.