WOONSOCKET — The custody battle for the man accused of murdering gas station manager David Main swerved toward uncharted legal territory yesterday as an appeals court postponed his transfer to federal authorities for arraignment on charges that carry the death penalty.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston granted the motion of defense lawyers for Jason Wayne Pleau to stay his surrender to federal authorities for arraignment — originally set for today — on charges stemming from Main's robbery and shooting death on Sept. 20.
The appeals court says it wants a full hearing on whether Pleau should be transferred from state to federal custody to face those charges. In a brief order issued yesterday afternoon, the appeals court asked Pleau's lawyers to submit written arguments by next Thursday in preparation for a hearing on July 28.
Defense lawyers Robert B. Mann and David P. Hoose argue that federal prosecutors do not have the authority to order Pleau's surrender in this case because Gov. Lincoln Chafee had protested the move.
The governor's position, they say, alters the normal scope of a treaty known as the Interstate Agreement on Detainers, which governs the transfer of prisoners between various jurisdictions.
Citing the state's longstanding opposition to the death penalty, Chafee refused to relinquish custody of Pleau to federal authorities about two weeks ago, the first time a governor had lodged such a protest. U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha then went to court seeking an order to compel Chafee to surrender Pleau – an order U.S. District Judge William E. Smith granted, saying federal law trumps that of the state.
While Chafee acknowledged that he did not have standing to defy the judge, Pleau's lawyers asked the appeals court for a stay, arguing that the governor's position renders the order toothless.
“Were that so,” federal prosecutors counter, “Pleau could evade prosecution until 2028, when he is due to be released from state prison – an absurd result that would seriously undermine the interests of justice.”
Pleau, they said, has no basis to contest a mere order to appear for arraignment, a procedural formality that poses no immediate threat to him. “If prisoners could challenge all such ministerial acts,” they said, “the lower courts would soon be tied in knots and proceedings would grind to a halt (as here).”
At least one member of the appeals court agreed with federal prosecutors. In a dissent posted with the order, Justice Michael Boudin said the governor “may or may not have some latitude” to intervene in IAD requests standing alone, but that issue vanished when Smith formally ordered Pleau's surrender.
“Whatever might be true of an IAD request standing alone and without the support of the district court writ, the Supreme Court in the United States v Mauro..., made it clear that the traditional habeas writ remains unencumbered in its authority and that the IAD provides no state veto over the writ,” Boudin wrote.
“In light of Mauro there is no justification, even of an arguable character, for disturbing the district court's action – let alone a “clear entitlement” to relief on Pleau's part.”
Reached by phone Thursday, Mann said he was encouraged by the position of the appeals court.
“We're pleased,” he said. “We're glad we have the opportunity to present further argument and we have one week to do it so we're getting right to work.”
Pleau, 33, of Providence, is one of three individuals prosecutors say plotted to rob Main as he was depositing the weekend's receipts from the Shell station on Diamond Hill Road at the nearby branch of Citizens Bank. Jose Santiago, a longtime Woonsocket resident who had recently relocated to Springfield, Mass., drove a getaway truck while his girlfriend, Kelly Lajoie, served as a lookout, passing on information about Main's movements using a cell phone.
Main was slain just a few feet from the front door of the bank as Pleau fled through a patch of woods with some $12,500 he had taken from the victim.
Federal prosecutors do not intend to seek the death penalty against Santiago or Lajoie.
Pleau is currently held at the Adult Correctional Institutions, where he is serving 18 years for violating his parole on unrelated robbery convictions.
He has been under indictment by a federal grand jury since last fall on several charges stemming from the deadly holdup, including robbery affecting interstate commerce; conspiracy to commit robbery affecting interstate commerce; and discharging a firearm during a crime of violence, death resulting.
Under the Hobbs Act, the first two charges are punishable by sentences of up to life in prison, or death, if a gun was used during the commission of a crime that results in loss of life.
Though it seldom happens, the federal government can impose the death penalty even in states like Rhode Island, where the harshest criminal penalty is not execution, but life without the possibility of parole.
Pleau was initially charged with murder in the state system, but Attorney General Peter Kilmartin later dismissed those charges after discussions with federal prosecutors and Main's family. The consensus was that the criminal charges should proceed on a federal track.