PROVIDENCE (AP) — A federal judge ordered Rhode Island officials Thursday to hand a suspect in a fatal robbery over to federal authorities after the governor, a death penalty opponent, refused to do so because the man could face execution if convicted.
U.S. District Judge William E. Smith says that independent Gov. Lincoln Chafee's refusal, under an interstate custody-transfer agreement, to turn over Jason Pleau so he can stand trial on federal murder charges does not mean the state can refuse a federal court order.
The Providence man was indicted along with two others in federal court last year in the Sept. 20 shooting death of David Main, 49, as he approached a bank in Woonsocket to deposit receipts from the nearby Shell station where he worked. Prosecutors say a masked Pleau chased and shot Main multiple times, then made off with a bank deposit bag containing more than $12,000.
Pleau is serving an 18-year sentence in state prison for violating his parole in a separate case. He has not been arraigned on the federal charges yet because he is in state custody.
Chafee last week refused to turn over Pleau because federal prosecutors could seek the death penalty — though it's not clear if they will. Pleau would not be exposed to a potential death sentence were the case tried in state court.
In the past, Chafee has said he opposes the death penalty. Smith says in his order that it appears to be the first time a governor has done so under the custody-transfer agreement.
Failure to honor the court order would violate the U.S. Constitution, which gives federal courts supremacy over state courts, Smith wrote.
While the agreement, part of the federal Interstate Agreement on Detainers Act, enacted in 1970, "serves to extend procedural protections to a prisoner transferred from state to federal custody, it does not turn well-grounded and immutable principles of federalism and federal supremacy on their head," according to Smith's order.
Pleau's lawyers had asked the judge to deny the government's request for a court order on custody transfer, but the judge refused, saying Pleau lacked standing.
A lawyer for Pleau said he was still reviewing the order when reached by phone Thursday afternoon.
A spokeswoman for Rhode Island's Department of Corrections did not immediately reply to a phone message seeking comment.
Federal prosecutors say Pleau — along with his co-defendants Jose A. Santiago and Kelley M. Lajoie, both of Springfield, Mass. — hatched a plot to rob Main at least two days before the killing. They say Santiago drove the getaway car and that Lajoie acted as a lookout, providing information on Main's movements by cell phone.
The court has entered pleas of not guilty for Santiago and Lajoie, who are in federal custody.