WOONSOCKET – The state chapter of the ACLU has filed a “friend of the court” brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston, siding with Gov. Chafee in his efforts to prevent accused murderer Jason Pleau from facing a possible death sentence at the hands of federal authorities.
Four other ACLU affiliates, from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and Puerto Rico, which are covered by the court’s jurisdiction, are also parties to the brief, as are the national and state associations of criminal defense lawyers.
Pleau, 34, is accused in the shooting death of gas station manager David Main during a robbery outside Citizens Bank in September 2010, but there are no murder charges pending against him in any court. There used to be, but they were dismissed by the state in anticipation of his arraignment under the jurisdiction of the federal courts – when Chafee interceded, citing the state’s longstanding opposition to the death penalty.
At issue is a law known as the Interstate Agreement on Detainers, which normally allows for the transfer of prisoners from one state to the next or between a state and the federal government. Setting what has been widely described as a precedent, Chafee refused to honor the transfer under the IAD last spring. When U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha attempted to renew the request under a more traditional writ of habeus corpus, Chafee still wouldn’t budge, touching off a custody battle that has kept Pleau in legal limbo.
After a majority of a three-member panel of the appeals court sided with Chafee on the issue, Neronha’s request to have the full court reconsider was granted in December. The ACLU filed the latest brief in anticipation of a hearing April 4.
“The majority opinion in Pleau’s case held in October that ‘once the government has put the gears of the IAD into motion, it is bound by the IAD’s terms, including its express reservation of a right of refusal to the governor of the sending state,’” the ACLU said in a press release.
“The ACLU brief supports that view, challenging the federal government’s contention that ‘it may refuse to transfer a prisoner to state custody but that a state may not refuse to transfer a prisoner to federal custody.’”
The ACLU said the IAD “creates a well-functioning, protective system that balances the interests of the prisoner, the prosecutor in the receiving state, and the governor of a sending state, giving each a voice in the process.” Federal prosecutors, on the other hand, argue that only the federal government should be the beneficiary of the IAD, “while evading its obligations and frustrating the ultimate objectives” of Congress in creating the law, the ACLU asserted.
In a summary of its legal argument, the ACLU called the IAD “critically important” to state and federal prisoners facing criminal charges. The law was enacted by Congress in 1970 to create cooperative procedures for allowing prisoners and prosecutors to dispose of pending cases promptly.
“The United States is a party to the IAD, and when it chooses to proceed under the IAD by lodging a detainer for a state prisoner, it must comply with the IAD’s provisions, including the duty to respect a governor’s discretionary decision to refuse to transfer the prison to federal custody,” papers filed in the case say. “Permitting the United States to opt-out of the IAD, after lodging a detainer, would undermine the integrity of the entire IAD process, cause the very problems the IAD was intended to alleviate, and frustrate the cooperative procedures that lie at the heart of the scheme that Congress enacted.”
On the contrary, federal prosecutors say the law isn’t broad enough for Chafee to assert his personal opposition to the death penalty as grounds to ignore the IAD.
“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 in earlier briefs. “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.”
The ACLU’s friend of the court brief was filed by ACLU volunteer attorneys at the law firm of Foley Hoag LLP in Boston.
Rhode Island was the second state to abolish the death penalty in 1852, and it has not carried out an execution since that time. Nevertheless, prisoners can face the death penalty if tried for certain federal crimes, including Hobbs Act Robbery, one of several counts returned against Pleau by a federal grand jury, and which he has never been arraigned on.
A career criminal who’s spent most of his adult life in jail, Pleau is currently serving 18 years at the state prison for a combination of parole and probation violations that kicked in when he was arrested for Main’s killing. Attorney General Peter Kilmartin says his intention is to bring new murder charges against Pleau if, in the end, the courts uphold Chafee’s position.
Pleau was one of three individuals who allegedly conspired to rob Main as he was depositing receipts from the Diamond Hill Road Shell station, where he worked, to the nearby Citizens Bank. One, Kelley M. Lajoie, 33, of Chicopee, Mass., has already pleaded guilty to robbery, firearms and other charges, but she has not yet been sentenced.
Similar charges are pending against her boyfriend, Jose Santiago, 34, also of Chicopee. The federal government does not intend to seek the death penalty against either of them, though prosecutors have not yet ruled it out in Pleau’s case.
Prosecutors say Lajoie acted as a lookout while Pleau shot Main in the head outside the front entrance to the bank, fleeing with a deposit bag containing some $12,542 to a getaway truck operated by Santiago.