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New dispute over death sentencing (UPDATE: DENIED)

UPDATE Thursday 4:12 pm:   Justice Breyer denied the application, acting alone.  No opinion was issued.  This will allow the transfer of the Rhode Island prisoner to federal authorities for trial.


Rhode Island’s governor, relying on his state’s opposition to the death penalty, asked the Supreme Court on Wednesday to bar the transfer of a state prison inmate to the federal government for prosecution on bank robbery charges that might lead to a death sentence.  In a stay application (Chafee, et al., v. U.S., 11A1113), Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee was joined by the Rhode Island inmate, Jason Wayne Pleau.  The request for a delay, until the case can be appealed to the Justices, was filed with Justice Stephen G. Breyer.

Pleau was already serving an 18-year prison sentence in Rhode Island for violation of parole and probation when the federal government demanded that he be turned over under a federal bank robbery charge.  In September 2010, Pleau allegedly shot and killed a gas station manager outside of a bank in Woonsocket, R.I., when the man was trying to deposit money.  In the federal case, Pleau is charged with robbery, conspiracy, and using a gun during a violent crime that resulted in death.  He could face the death penalty if convicted, but a decision on that has not yet been made.

The case turns on the meaning of the Interstate Agreement on Detainers Act.  Normally, that law is used to make it easier for one state to obtain custody of an individual who is in another state, for prosecution for a crime in the demanding state.   The federal government, however, is covered by the Act’s provisions, too.

When the federal government formally asked Rhode Island to hand over Pleau, the state — exercising what it believes is its right under the Act — refused, based on the state’s public policy against death sentencing.  The government, however, then went into federal court, and obtained a formal writ commanding Rhode Island to turn over Pleau, despite the governor’s objections.  As of now, the federal government’s argument has prevailed, as the en banc First Circuit Court ruled in May that Rhode Island must obey the writ.  The Circuit Court split 3-2 on the issue.

The governor and Pleau, in their joint plea for delay, sought a stay of the Circuit Court ruling until the Supreme Court could act on separate appeals, which both the governor and Pleau said they plan to file by June 22.   In the meantime, they asked the Court to bar the Circuit Court from implementing its ruling until the Justices can act on the stay request.   As of now, the transfer to federal custody could occur as soon as May 29 — next Tuesday — because the Circuit Court has refused a delay.

While their plea was filed with Breyer as the Circuit Justice for the First Circuit, Breyer has the option of acting on it on his own, or sharing it with his colleagues.

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, New dispute over death sentencing (UPDATE: DENIED), SCOTUSblog (May. 24, 2012, 4:12 PM),