WOONSOCKET — In a surprise move, Governor Lincoln Chafee has filed a legal brief in support of Jason Wayne Pleau's appeal to quash a court order for him to surrender on federal charges stemming from the murder of a gas station manager – charges that could carry the death penalty.
The custody battle over the man accused of the Sept. 20 robbery and shooting death of David D. Main erupted last month when Chafee, citing the state's opposition to the death penalty, refused to honor a type of warrant, known as a detainer, issued for Pleau by federal prosecutors. U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha later obtained an order from the U.S. District Court to compel Chafee to surrender Pleau, an order Chafee acknowledged he had no standing to fight.
Now Chafee says his disapproval of the detainer request should have been the last word in the tug of war over Pleau. In a 24-page “friend of the court” legal brief, Chafee says he has the power to refuse to surrender a prisoner under the federal law that governs detainers – the Interstate Agreement on Detainers Act – and that power cannot be trumped by a court order.
“The questions before this court – and the focus of this brief – are whether the IAD permits the governor of a custodial state to exercise his discretion to disapprove the transfer of a state prisoner based on state public policy grounds and whether such disapproval is final,” Claire Richards, the governor's chief legal counsel, wrote in the brief. “The Governor submits that the answer to both questions is yes.”
A statement from the governor's office said Chafee filed the brief because “the state has a strong interest in ensuring the application of Rhode Island law to Rhode Island citizens in criminal matters occurring within the state of Rhode Island.”
“That interest is particularly compelling where, as here, the transfer would expose a defendant to the death penalty, a punishment the state of Rhode Island and its citizens have long rejected as a matter of public policy,” the statement said. “The Governor views this issue as even more pressing given the fact that the death penalty seems to be the primary reason for the federal government's request for the transfer.”
The brief comes as prosecutors from Neronha's office and Pleau's defense lawyers filed paperwork with the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston this week setting forth collision-course arguments in the battle for custody of Pleau.
The papers were filed in preparation for a hearing before a three-judge panel of the court on Pleau's appeal of the U.S. District Court's order, set for July 28. The court has already agreed to grant Chafee's request to argue in support of the claim during hearing.
But Asst. U.S. Attorney Donald C. Lockhart says it doesn't matter one way or the other whether Chafee honors the IAD – Pleau must still to obey the order.
Pleau “doesn't even come close to satisfying the standard” for blocking the order, because there's no evidence of legal error or any indication that he would suffer irreversible harm merely by appearing for arraignment on criminal charges, Lockhart contends.
Moreover, says Lockhart, the IAD is backed by the force of the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which means the law supercedes any authority the state has to withhold Pleau from federal prosecutors.
Even if the IAD were the sole mechanism for obtaining prisoners from another jurisdiction, as Chafee's and Pleau's lawyers argue, their position is still flawed, according to Lockhart.
“This is so, because, under the IAD, a state governor is not entitled to refuse a temporary transfer of custody based solely on moral objections to a prosecution,” he says. “Rather, a governor may spurn a fellow sovereign's request only if it fails to comply with the IAD rules designed to safeguard the process and assure that the request is genuine.”
Lawyers Robert B. Mann of Providence David P. Hoose of Northampton, Mass., filed a 54-page brief refuting the federal government's arguments.
They're asking the appeals court for a permanent stay of the order or, in the alternative, a hold long enough to give the U.S. Supreme Court a chance to consider the case.
Like Chafee, they say the federal government simply cannot do a legal end run around the IAD by obtaining a court order to compel their client's appearance for arraignment.
“There is no basis for assuming that the federal statute that gives the courts the authority to issue (the order) trumps another federal statute, the IADA,” they say.
Pleau is one of three people under federal indictment on charges related to the robbery and murder of Main, 49, who was killed outside the Citizens Bank on Diamond Hill Road, near his job at a Shell service station. Along with Pleau, prosecutors say Jose A. Santiago and his girlfriend, Kelley M. Lajoie, plotted to rob Main at least two days before the killing. Santiago allegedly drove the getaway truck while Lajoie acted as a lookout.
Prosecutors say a masked Pleau chased and shot Main in the head as he approached the bank. Pleau then made off with a bank deposit bag containing some $12,500, authorities say.
Pleau is serving 18 years at the state's Adult Correctional Institutions for parole and probation violations stemming from the crime.
But he's also under federal indictment on charges that include 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 federal prosecutors seek to compel Pleau's appearance for arraignment on those charges, they so far decline to affirm their intention to seek the death penalty. Meanwhile, they've already ruled out capital punishment for either Santiago or Lajoie.
If he's allowed to remain in state custody, Pleau has already agreed to trade a plea of guilty to Main's murder for the harshest penalty on the books under state law – life without the possibility of parole.