Inmate in RI legal tug-of-war pleads not guilty

An inmate at the center of a legal fight between Gov. Lincoln Chafee and federal prosecutors was turned over to federal authorities on Wednesday, but the battle over who gets to prosecute him on fatal robbery charges isn't over.

A lawyer for Jason W. Pleau, 34, entered a not guilty plea for him in U.S. District Court in Providence on charges he used a firearm during a crime of violence, robbery and conspiracy to commit robbery. The arraignment was scheduled after the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston issued a written order on Tuesday clearing the way for his prosecution in federal court.

Robert B. Mann, Pleau's lawyer, told the judge Wednesday that he believes his client was illegally brought to court.

"This thing is still in the middle of litigation," Mann said outside the courtroom. "We’re going to try to go to the United States Supreme 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 doesn't have capital punishment.

Pleau is accused of fatally shooting gas station manager David Main, 49, as he approached a Woonsocket bank on Sept. 20, 2010, to deposit receipts from a nearby Shell station where he worked. Prosecutors say a masked Pleau chased and shot Main multiple times, then made off with a bank deposit bag containing more than $12,000.

Pleau 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.

Chafee 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. The defense has said Pleau is willing to plead guilty to charges in state court and serve a life sentence.

U.S. Attorney Peter F. Neronha said that federal authorities protect banks and their customers and that Pleau’s case is "plainly a case that the federal government should prosecute."

"If we’re going to prosecute robberies committed with notes in Burrillville, then in my judgment there is no reason we shouldn’t be prosecuting cases where the allegations ... are that someone was killed on the doorstep of a bank," Neronha said.

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.

Federal prosecutors say Pleau — along with his co-defendants Jose A. Santiago and Kelley M. Lajoie — hatched a plot to rob Main at least two days before the killing. They say Santiago drove the getaway car and that Lajoie acted as a lookout, providing information on Main's movements by cellphone.

After the robbery, prosecutors say Pleau, Lajoie and Santiago met and divided the proceeds.

Lajoie pleaded guilty to robbery and other charges last year and is awaiting sentencing. Not guilty pleas have been entered for Santiago, who is awaiting trial. A judge on Wednesday appointed a new lawyer to represent him.