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Appeals court hears arguments over RI denial to hand suspect to federal custody

Attorneys argued [oral arguments audio file, MP3] before the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit [official website] Thursday that Rhode Island is not obligated to turn over alleged murderer Jason Pleau to federal prosecutors in an effort to prevent him from facing the death penalty in federal court. Rhode Island has had a longstanding rejection of the death penalty. Pleau's attorneys claimed [Providence Journal report] that the federal government does not have the jurisdiction to detain Pleau after Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee [official website] refused to surrender him on June 23. Federal prosecutors' ability to seize Pleau is codified by the Interstate Agreement on Detainers [text], but that law allows state governors to refuse to transfer prisoners to federal custody: "the Governor of the sending State may disapprove the request for temporary custody or availability, either upon his own motion or upon motion of the prisoner." The US District Court for the District of Rhode Island [official website] ordered Chafee to turn Pleau over to federal agents on June 30. Chafee said he would comply, but Pleau's attorneys appealed to the First Circuit, at which point Chafee filed an amicus brief [The Call report]. Donald Lockhart, for the US Attorney's Office [official website], argued that the Interstate Agreement on Detainers is pre-empted by the District Court's order, and that the Governor's office has no standing in the case. Lockhart stressed urgency and asked that the three-judge panel rule on the issue as soon as possible. Although the panel let Chafee personally argue on behalf of Pleau, they stressed that he must officially intervene to continue his role in the case. After the hearing, Chafee filed a motion to intervene [AP report], claiming that he has standing to protect his state's sovereignty. The US Attorneys Office plans to challenge this motion. Chafee has also stated that he will appeal to the US Supreme Court if necessary.

Pleau was sentenced to 18 years in prison [The Call report] for violating his probation after being accused of killing a gas station attendant in the process of a robbery. No state charges were filed [The Call report], as Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin [official website] decided that the US Attorney's Office had jurisdiction for the crime beyond the probation violation. However, should federal proceedings not occur, Pleau has agreed to plead guilty and accept a life sentence [Boston.com report] without the possibility of parole. Rhode Island was one of the first states to abolish the death penalty, abolishing it in 1852. After becoming a state, Rhode Island has only executed seven people, including John Gordon in 1845, who Chafee recently pardoned [press release], delivering a statement on his stance on the death penalty: "John Gordon’s wrongful execution was a major factor in Rhode Island’s abolition of and longstanding opposition to the death penalty. ... as we pardon John Gordon, we also recognize and uphold that commitment."

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