An inmate at the center of a legal fight between Gov. Lincoln Chafee and federal prosecutors is making his first appearance in federal court, but the battle over who gets to prosecute him on fatal robbery charges is not over.
Jason W. Pleau, 34, was ordered on Tuesday to be arraigned in U.S. District Court in Providence. The hearing on Wednesday was scheduled after the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston issued a written order clearing the way for his prosecution in federal court.
Chafee, an independent, has been fighting for nearly a year to prevent Pleau from being prosecuted in federal court, where he faces a possible death penalty prosecution. Rhode Island does not have capital punishment.
Still, Pleau's first appearance before a federal judge is not interfering with Chafee's plans to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to spokeswoman Christine Hunsinger.
"The governor's position hasn't changed," Hunsinger said Tuesday. Defense attorney Robert B. Mann also said Pleau's arraignment will not impede efforts to ask the Supreme Court to review the case.
Pleau is accused of fatally shooting gas station manager David Main, 49, outside a Woonsocket bank in 2010. He was indicted on federal charges in December 2010, but his prosecution has been on hold for nearly a year while federal prosecutors and Chafee battled in court over custody of Pleau. He is serving an 18-year sentence in state prison for violating his probation in another case.
Pleau will not be in federal custody until he appears in federal court, said Jim Martin, a spokesman for Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Peter F. Neronha.
Chafee has refused to surrender Pleau to federal authorities, saying the federal government wants to try him to make the death penalty a possible punishment. Chafee is believed to be the first governor to refuse to surrender an inmate under the Interstate Agreement on Detainers Act.
Federal prosecutors haven't said whether they will pursue a death penalty if Pleau is convicted.
In a 3-2 decision this month, the appeals panel ruled that Pleau may stand trial in federal court. Chafee and Pleau asked the appeals court and the U.S. Supreme Court to delay the proceedings, but they were turned down.
Chafee has argued that the provision allowing governors to refuse to surrender inmates applies when federal authorities seek to take state prisoners into custody. Chafee's interpretation of the law is backed by two appeals court judges who signed onto the dissenting opinion issued this month.
Three people were charged in connection with Main's death. One has pleaded guilty to robbery and other charges and is awaiting sentencing in September; the third defendant, Jose Alibal Santiago, is awaiting trial. He is due in court on Wednesday to ask for a new lawyer.