WOONSOCKET — It’s official: accused killer Jason Wayne Pleau is now a federal prisoner facing a possible death penalty, despite Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s continuing efforts to safeguard the career criminal in state custody.
Pleau appeared for arraignment in U.S. District Court, Providence, for the first time on Wednesday, months after federal prosecutors first sought his transfer from state prison.
Flanked by his lawyer, Robert Mann, Pleau pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from the Sept. 20, 2010 shooting death of gas station manager David Main outside the East Woonsocket branch of Citizens Bank.
U.S. District Judge David L. Martin later ordered Pleau held without bail pending trial at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Center, the federal holding facility in Central Falls.
The U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for Pleau’s arraignment by refusing to consider a request to stay his transfer from the Adult Correctional Institutions to face the charges, as ordered by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston on May 7. The stay was requested not just by Pleau’s private lawyers, but by Chafee, who believes that Pleau shouldn’t be allowed to face a possible death penalty in Rhode Island, where capital punishment has long been abolished.
The stay was denied, but lawyers for both Chafee and Pleau intend to press the U.S. Supreme Court for a review the underlying issues that led to the circuit court’s ruling.
In a brief interview with reporters on the steps of the federal courthouse in Providence after the arraignment, U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha said he is confident Pleau is in federal custody for good, and that he will be put on trial in the federal courts.
“This case is now going to proceed as it should have from the beginning,” Neronha said. “When the allegation is that someone was killed on the doorstep of a bank, to me that is plainly a case for the federal government to prosecute.”
The law at the center of the tug of war for custody of Pleau is known as the Interstate Agreement on Detainers, which normally allows for a quick, orderly transfer of inmates from one state to another or from a state to a federal district.
The prosecution of 34-year-old Pleau had been on hold since June 2011, when Chafee refused to surrender him to federal authorities, arguing that the IAD gave him the power to refuse the government’s request. The dispute was initially decided in Chafee’s favor by a sub-panel of the federal appeals court, then reversed after Neronha won a review of the ruling by the full court last month.
Chafee’s and Pleau’s lawyers both intend to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. They have 90 days to file papers, but there’s no guarantee the nation’s highest court will agree to consider the case.
Despite all the publicity surrounding the possibility that Pleau might face the death penalty, Neronha remains silent on whether it is his intention to do so. Ultimately, it would be up to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to approve of such a decision after a lengthy process.
Main's killing marks the first time in over a decade that the federal government has pushed for the death penalty in a murder case in the state.
Five men were put on trial in federal court following the execution style-style shooting deaths of Amy Shute, 21, and Jason Burgeson, 20, in 2000. Federal prosecutors put together a 300-page petition arguing for the death penalty, but it was dismissed with little explanation by the Capital Crimes Unit of the Justice Department in Washington, D.C.
Three of the perpetrators later received federal prison sentences of life without parole and a fourth was sentenced to 30 years. The federal courts dismissed the charges against a fifth, who was later convicted in state courts and sentenced to four consecutive life sentences.
Federal prosecutors say Pleau conspired with Jose Santiago and Kelley Lajoie, Santiago’s girlfriend, to rob Main of some $12,500 in deposits from the Shell gas station he managed.
Lajoie pleaded guilty earlier this year and is to be sentenced in September, while Santiago faces trial, like Pleau, after entering a not guilty plea.
In the case of Santiago and Lajoie, Neronha has already disclosed that he will not seek the death penalty.