WOONSOCKET – A day after the governor vowed to protect accused killer Jason Wayne Pleau from a possible federal death penalty by holding him for prosecution on state charges, the attorney general released this bit of news: there are no state charges.
The state dismissed the murder case against Pleau after he was sentenced to 18 years for being in violation of his probation by allegedly shooting to death 49-year-old gas station manager David D. Main on Sept. 20, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin said in a statement released yesterday.
“The track of this case was charted after the initial incident in 2010,” said Kilmartin. “By agreement of this office and the U.S. Attorney, the state would proceed to charge Pleau with the crime in state court and as a probation violator on previous charges while the U.S. Attorney sought to indict Pleau federally.”
After discussion with U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha and Main's family, the state dropped the murder charges against Pleau in May, said Kilmartin, adding, “the jurisdiction of this case at this time is in federal court.”
The federal indictment accuses Pleau and two co-defendants – Jose A. Santiago and Kelley M. Lajoie, both of Springfield, Mass. – of hatching a plot to rob Main at least two days before the killing. Main, the manager of the Shell station on Diamond Hill Road, was robbed of over $12,000 and shot in the head by Pleau outside a nearby Citizens Bank as the victim was attempting to deposit the weekend's receipts.
Prosecutors say Santiago drove the getaway car and that Lajoie acted as a lookout and provided information by cell phone on Main's movements.
Pleau is facing a string of federal charges in connection with the crime, including Hobbs Act murder and robbery, which potentially carry the death penalty.
Provided the Capital Case Unit of the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, D.C., agrees, Neronha can push for the death penalty even though the crimes took place in a state jurisdiction like Rhode Island, where the death penalty is not permitted.
Under state law, the most severe criminal penalty on the books is life without the possibility of parole. No one has been put to death in Rhode Island since 1845, when Irishman John Gordon was hanged for the murder of wealthy industrialist Amasa Sprague – an episode widely believed today to have been a case of wrongful prosecution, spurred by class bias.
In a dramatic confrontation with federal authorities, Gov. Lincoln Chafee refused to honor a federal request from Neronha's office to temporarily relinquish state custody of Pleau so he could be arraigned on the federal charges. Chafee, citing his longstanding opposition to the death penalty, expressed confidence in the state's ability to handle the charges against Pleau on its own.
“My disapproval of the federal government's request should in no way minimize the tragic and senseless nature of Mr. Main's murder," Chafee said. "The person or persons responsible for this horrific act must, and will, be prosecuted and punished to the full extent of the law.”
Despite the horrific nature of the crime, however, Chafee said the state would not put Pleau to death under any circumstances, so he could not “in good conscience voluntarily expose a Rhode Island citizen to a potential death penalty prosecution.”
“I am confident Attorney General Kilmartin and Rhode Island's criminal justice system are capable of ensuring that justice is served in this matter,” the governor said.
It's unclear if Chafee knew when he issued the statement that state prosecutors had already dismissed the case against Pleau or whether, as Kilmartin explained, the track of the case had been mapped out by mutual agreement of state and federal prosecutors months ago.
Neither Christian Vareika, a spokesman for Chafee, nor Michael Trainor, his chief of communications, returned telephone calls on the matter yesterday.
Kilmartin said the state never considered the possibility of the death penalty a factor in charting a path for the prosecution of the case. The plan was driven, in part, by the wishes of Main's family, he said.
“I am also fully cognizant it is extremely rare for an individual to receive the death penalty in the federal system,” said Kilmartin.
The Associated Press reported yesterday that Pleau had expressed a willingness to plea to the state charges over a month ago in return for a sentence of life without parole. The information was based on a letter sent to Chafee's office from Chief Public Defender John Hardiman, Pleau's lawyer on the state side.
Lawyer Robert Mann, who represents Pleau on the federal charges, said it is not too late for the state to resurrect a case against his client.
“Their dismissal does not prevent them from refiling the charges,” Mann told The Call.
Mann applauded Chafee's stance on Pleau's transfer of custody, saying, “We're grateful for it. It's consistent with the state's long history of opposition to the death penalty.”
But Mann said that regardless of Chafee's position, he fully expects the federal government to pursue the death penalty against Pleau on federal charges.
The next step is the process is scheduled for July 25, said Mann, when he and co-counsel David Hoose are to meet with representatives of the Capital Case Unit in the nation's capital. Mann said it was the defense's opportunity to mount an argument against moving forward on the death penalty, but he declined to go into detail.
While Pleau is serving his time at the Adult Correctional Institutions, Santiago and Lajoie face the death penalty on similar charges and are already being held in federal custody.
Main's killing marks the first time in over a decade that the federal government has pushed for the death penalty in a murder case in the state.
Five men were put on trial in federal court following the execution style-style shooting deaths of Amy Shute, 21, and Jason Burgeson, 20, in 2000. Federal prosecutors put together a 300-page petition arguing for the death penalty, but it was dismissed with little explanation by the Capital Crimes Unit.
Three of the perpetrators later received federal prison sentences of life without parole and a fourth was sentenced to 30 years. The federal courts dismissed the charges against a fifth, who was later convicted in state courts and sentenced to four consecutive life sentences.