WOONSOCKET — The death penalty was back in play yesterday for accused murderer Jason Wayne Pleau as a federal appeals court in Boston said it would reconsider whether Gov. Chafee has the right to continue safeguarding him in state custody.
A majority of the First Circuit Court of Appeals voted Wednesday in favor of a review of the issue by the full court, setting a hearing for April 4. The decision came in response to an appeal filed by U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha after a three-member judicial panel of the court handed a victory to Chafee in the battle for custody of Pleau two months ago.
Pleau, 34, a career criminal who’s spent most of his adult life in prison, is facing federal charges in connection with the shooting death of gas station manager David D. Main during a robbery outside Citizens Bank last year.
The legal machinations began after Pleau was sentenced to 18 years at the state prison for probation and parole violations for his role in the Sept. 20, 2010 killing.
In June, federal prosecutors asked the state to turn Pleau over to their custody under a law known as the Interstate Agreement on Detainers, or IAD, which Chafee contends gives him the power to refuse such requests. In a first for any governor in the nation, Chafee invoked his authority under the IAD, citing the state’s longstanding opposition to capital punishment.
While the death penalty has been abolished in Rhode Island, federal courts operating here still have the option of imposing it upon conviction for certain crimes, including Hobbs Act robbery, one of several charges Pleau faces under federal indictment.
After the unprecedented rebuff from Chafee, federal prosecutors renewed their efforts to gain custody of Pleau through a more traditional writ of habeus corpus, which the governor also denied, triggering the litigation.
By a vote of 2-1 however, a judicial panel of the appeals court upheld Chafee’s position on the matter on Oct. 13, saying the law precluded Neronha from taking a second bite at the custody apple once he had invoked a transfer under the IAD.
As part of its ruling Wednesday, the circuit court also vacated that ruling pending a hearing before the full court.
Though the latest developments were a setback for Chafee, the governor responded with a brief statement of support for the decision.
“Gov. Chafee recognizes the important state sovereignty issues at stake in United States v. Pleau and believes that it is entirely appropriate for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit — all six judges — to hear and decide the case,” a statement issued by the governor’s office said. “The governor is looking forward to the presentation of his case before the full court in April.”
Neronha’s office declined comment, but its position on the legal issues is abundantly clear from legal papers already filed in the case. Briefs filed in support of the appeal say Chafee’s position, if affirmed, would represent “a radical shift of power from the federal government to the states.”
“Although a refusal to transfer custody here is based on a governor’s opposition to capital punishment, the panel opinion creates the potential for federal-state conflicts in other subject areas,” wrote Asst. U.S. Attorney Donald C. Lockhart.
“Imagine the governor who disagrees with federal drug penalties or who thinks that marijuana should be legalized, or the governor who believes certain gun laws violate the Second Amendment. Armed with panel opinion, such a governor will feel emboldened to veto the writ in such cases.”
While efforts to prosecute Pleau in the federal courts are stuck in the legal quagmire, they’re already approaching the sentencing phase for one of two co-defendants in the case.
Kelley M. Lajoie, 33, of Chicopee, Mass., pled guilty to robbery, firearms and other charges in U.S. District Court on Dec. 9 during a hearing in which she provided the clearest picture yet of the events surrounding Main’s killing.
Lajoie admitted that on the day of the homicide, she helped Pleau and her boyfriend, Jose Santiago, case the Shell gas station on Diamond Hill Road and identify the manager. Lajoie, who claims the two men inducted her into the scheme over her protests, agreed to serve as a lookout and took part in a “dry run” of the robbery several hours before the real thing.
Later, she drove Pleau to an area behind the bank and dropped him off. Santiago waited in a nearby cul-de-sac in a white box truck that he and Pleau would use to flee after the robbery.
At 10:43 that morning, Lajoie parked her car across the street from the gas station and waited for Main to leave with the deposit bag. At 11:08 a.m, she called Pleau on her cell phone to tell him Main was on his way to the bank. She followed him until he pulled into the parking lot.
Two minutes later, prosecutors say, “Pleau allegedly chased, shot and robbed Mr. Main of a deposit bag containing $12,542 in cash as he tried to enter the bank.” Lajoie later reunited with Pleau and Santiago in Providence, where they divvied up the loot. She and Santiago shared approximately $6,500.
Prosecutors have said they do not intend to seek the death penalty against either Lajoie or Santiago, 34, also of Chicopee. They’ve made no such promises in the case of Pleau, however.