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July 28, 2013

After extensive (and expensive?) jurisdictional wrangling, Jason Pleau agrees to plead guilty to avoid federal death penalty prosecution

As reported in this local piece from Rhode Island, standard-issue robbery murder case which prompted a high-profile legal tussle between state officials and the feds has now resulted in a standard-issue plea deal to take the death penalty off the table.  The piece is headlined "Death sentence avoided as Jason Pleau’s pleads guilty in 2010 killing of gas-station manager," and here are the details:

The saga of Jason Wayne Pleau, the accused killer whose case drew a governor and the U.S. attorney general into the national debate on the death penalty, has reached a resolution that could see his life spared, in return for spending the rest of it behind bars.

In a plea agreement filed in federal court Friday, Pleau, who faced the death penalty, agreed to plead guilty to charges in connection with his fatal shooting of David D. Main, a Woonsocket gas station manager, during a bank robbery in September 2010.

Pleau agreed to accept a life sentence in prison, with no release.  In return, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder signed off on a decision by federal prosecutors not to seek the death penalty....

“Obviously, we’re all grateful that Jason Pleau isn’t facing the prospect of a death sentence,” said his lawyer, Robert B. Mann.

Pleau’s case attracted national attention when Governor Chafee, an opponent of the death penalty, refused to turn Pleau over to federal custody. 

Chafee issued a statement following Friday’s announcement by federal prosecutors.  “My thoughts are with Mr. Main’s family. The case today has reached a conclusion, and Mr. Main’s family can begin the long healing process. A life sentence is the appropriate punishment for this brutal crime and respects Rhode Island’s long-standing opposition to the death penalty.”

According to a signed plea agreement filed in U.S. District Court in Providence, Pleau, 35, will plead guilty to committing Hobbs Act robbery; and carrying, using, and discharging a firearm during and in relation to a federal crime of violence, death resulting....

A federal grand jury indicted Pleau in December 2010, but the case was delayed for nearly a year as Chafee became possibly the first governor in the nation to refuse to surrender a prisoner to federal custody based on opposition to capital punishment.

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the governor’s argument, on a 3-to-2 vote, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene.

As the title of my post suggests, I wonder how much it cost the taxpayers of Rhode Island for its Governor to put up an aggressive fight to try to prevent federal authorities from being able to effectively prosecute a federal murderer. Ironically, losing this fight ultimately saved these same taxpayers the roughly $500,000 it will likely cost to keep Jason Pleau imprisoned until he dies.  Now federal taxpayers will be footing this bill.

July 28, 2013 at 02:46 PM | Permalink

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"to prevent federal authorities from being able to effectively prosecute a federal murderer"

Did the state oppose the feds prosecuting him "effectively" or does "effectively" mean "death penalty eligible"?

The whole thing is somewhat of a mess (putting aside the federalism concern our sometime guest professor is concerned about) since bottom line he was already sentenced to life in prison after (sound on a policy basis) he was tried in state court for his crime that looks to me like much more of a state crime than a federal one. I think the feds had the power to try him, but it was bad on policy grounds.

Ironically, RI gets a twofer -- no death penalty AND having the feds handle the prisoner. Putting aside that, it's hard to quantify what it is all "worth" if the state policy was to be opposed to the death penalty. If things were switched, how much is it 'worth' to have person sentenced to die? Putting aside that realistically there is a slim chance for a federal murderer to be executed.

Posted by: Joe | Jul 28, 2013 11:19:54 PM

"and discharging a firearm during and in relation to a federal crime of violence, death resulting"

As though Pleau fired aimlessly into the air,
instead of deliberately into the head of a fleeing, unarmed stranger depositing hard-earned money.

Chafee must be satisfied, along with the imps of Hades

Posted by: Adamakis | Jul 29, 2013 2:39:09 PM

Joe: "looks to me like much more of a state crime than a federal one"

Can you see straight?

robbery effecting interstate commerce; conspiracy to commit robbery affecting interstate commerce; and possessing, using, carrying, and discharging a firearm in relation to a crime of violence, death resulting at a federally insured bank

At least now you can cancel your vigils and save your candles.

Posted by: Adamakis | Jul 29, 2013 2:41:19 PM

The matter of proper state/federal division of power on this question was greatly debated here and elsewhere in the past. The killing of a gas station owner is basically a state crime.

I already noted that the feds had the power to prosecute. I have more than once disagreed with a professor who sometimes posts here on the 8A/federalism issue there, including the feds having the power to set a higher punishment than the state in question feels deserving.

I noted here that it looks "much more" like a state crime. This doesn't mean it is not in some sense of federal crime. If being federally insured and interstate commerce will do the trick, many a local murder will be federal, given the range of places federally regulated these days under that power.

Posted by: Joe | Jul 29, 2013 4:48:27 PM

Learn my name, dammit.

Just kidding.

Posted by: Michael J.Z. Mannheimer | Jul 29, 2013 9:26:00 PM

"The maximum sentence under State law is life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The federal sentencing guidelines include the death penalty. The Main Family is confident
that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will seek the death penalty given the facts of the pending case..."
Respectfully yours,
Kathleen Main, Wife [Widow]

- Not in America, in 2013; all we can accomplish is to denounce and to despair living
in an increasingly socialistic, effectively atheist state. -

abc6.com/story Today people at the gas station Main used to manage were upset.

: : "I think it's a shame because he lost his life and his family will never see him again. This person (Pleau)
is going to continue to live," said Phillip Tanner
: : "Put him in prison for life. Whatever, you know?..." said Thelma Laforge of Woonsocket.
: : "I am surprised at the government because he took a life. Dave's life must have been worth something, you know?
I think he (Pleau) should get the death penalty, because Dave got the death penalty," said [Greg] Gomes ...
a long time customer of David Main's

- "..but his blood will I require at the watchman's hand."--Ezek 33:6
"[T]hey judge not the fatherless, neither doth the cause of the widow come unto them." --Isaiah 1:23 -

Posted by: Adamakis | Jul 30, 2013 11:17:56 AM

I'm really not a big fan of overfederalization of prosecution, but given that it's become customary for bank robbery to be prosecuted federally (there are as I understand it approximately zero non-federally-insured banks still in operation in the country), federal prosecution of a felony-murder of a bank customer committed in the course of a bank robbery that likely would have been federally prosecuted if no one had been hurt doesn't particularly trouble me (leaving the penalty issue aside). I guess the money the victim was bringing to deposit might not itself have been covered by the federal guarantee that's the usual jurisdictional hook because he was killed before he managed to get it deposited (meaning they needed a different jurisdictional hook), but it still doesn't trouble me the way a federal prosecution of a felony-murder incident to a robbery of the victim's gas station (because the gas he sold had travelled in commerce, or something) would have.

Posted by: JWB | Jul 30, 2013 1:22:15 PM

JWB--

The jurisdictional hook is the same regardless of how proximate the victim was to the bank: it was a Hobbs Act robbery. It's a Hobbs Act robbery if the victim is in the bank about to make a deposit, or outside the bank, or on his way to the bank, or still at the gas station, or (the First Circuit has held) at home with the proceeds. Any robbery of a commercial establishment, or any robbery that nets the proceeds of a commercial establishment (at least in the First Circuit) is a federal crime. If that doesn't trouble you, it should.

There was no "bank robbery" at all here. The bank had nothing to do with it.

Posted by: Michael J.Z. Mannheimer | Jul 30, 2013 2:52:58 PM

I'm not sure if I understand Prof. Mannheimer, or perhaps we're just talking past each other. The story reports (I assume acccurately): "On Sept. 20, 2010, the plea agreement says, Pleau, Jose Santiago and Kelley Lajoie conspired to rob a Citizens Bank branch on Diamond Hill Road in Woonsocket. Outside the bank, the masked Pleau robbed Main, the manager of a Shell gas station, of $12,542 as he attempted to enter the bank to deposit receipts from the business. Pleau, brandishing a loaded revolver, fired several times, striking Main in the head and killing him." I'd say the bank had something to do with it as a practical matter. Now, maybe as a matter of Hobbs Act doctrine the tightness of the nexus to the bank doesn't matter at all. That's not my point. My point is that given the tightness of that nexus as a factual matter (however technically irrelevant) the exercise of prosecutorial discretion to take advantage of that doctrine bothers me much less in this particular case than it might in many others covered by the same doctrine, on the assumption (which I'm happy to have challenged if I've got it wrong) that the conspiracy to rob the federally-insured bank could have and would have been federally rather than locally charged if that was all that had happened. (Here I guess the distraction and complication created by the perhaps not-planned-in-advance on-the-doorstep robbery/killing meant the perps never carried through on the actual bank robbery they'd planned and thus never got to be point of forcing a teller to hand them a few grand in federally-insured deposits mixed up with an exploding dye pack?) In other words, the defendants set out that day to commit a federal crime, and if through chance they ended up committing a different (and more jurisdictionally shaky) one than they may have planned, they're still not the best poster children for the Tenth Amendment.

Relying on prosecutorial discretion to avoid excessive use of overbroad statutes that overfederalize crime is a second-best if not third-best solution, but if it's all we have available to us at the moment it's still appropriate, I think, to point out instances in which we think (obviously different people can have different views on particular cases) where the exercise of that discretion strikes us as more appropriate and less abusive so we have more credibility when we complain about other cases where the exercise of the discretion was more abusive.

I'm trying to separate this point conceptually from the death-penalty-availability point, although I am happy to admit that was probably in the mix in terms of what motivated the various political actors to act as they did. But the same issue can arise when the DP is off the table. It's just that no one gets as excited if federal prosecution for a homicide with a debatable federal nexus is likely to lead to a sentence between 360 months and life whereas a state prosecution might get you 25 years with a deeper possible good-time discount off the "sticker price."

Posted by: JWB | Jul 30, 2013 4:09:05 PM

JWB,

I think you're right to the extent that, had this not happened outside a bank, the U.S. Attorney might have decided not to prosecute. My point is only that this is not a bank robbery; the media keep calling it a bank robbery but they are wrong. It's a Hobbs Act robbery, pure and simple. Legally, the bank has nothing to do with it. You can't assume the media are getting it right because they usually are not.

Posted by: Michael J.Z. Mannheimer | Jul 30, 2013 4:51:38 PM

Honestly, I have no idea where the author of the article is getting the notion that they conspired to rob the bank. The typo in the title of the article should tip you off that these are not exactly the best and brightest journalists in the world.

Posted by: Michael J.Z. Mannheimer | Jul 30, 2013 4:59:01 PM

Well, as I read it the article purported to be quoting or paraphrasing a factual recital in the plea agreement that there was a conspiracy among the defendants to rob the bank. I remain open to the possibility that the plea agreement in fact says nothing of the sort, even though you would think the journalist would have had a copy handy while writing this article. (I also am open to the possibility that factual recitals in plea agreements aren't always fully historically accurate, although allocution is supposed to be a check on excessive fictionalization in that area.) I assume (although this is not my expertise) that even if they ultimately didn't plead to a federal conspiracy-to-rob-the-bank count, the plea agreement could plausibly have still recited that uncharged criminal conduct by way of context and background.

Posted by: JWB | Jul 30, 2013 5:21:11 PM

JWB--

You can read the plea agreement for yourself here: http://news.providencejournal.com/breaking-news/pleauagreement.pdf.

The operative language is in para. 8 on pp. 2-3. As you can see, the article's assertion that "the plea agreement says [that] Pleau, Jose Santiago and Kelley Lajoie conspired to rob a Citizens Bank branch on Diamond Hill Road in Woonsocket," is absolutely false. I would say that the author's reading comprehension skills are pretty poor.

Posted by: Michael J.Z. Mannheimer | Jul 30, 2013 10:48:54 PM

I am a criminal defense attorney, and at the time that Pleau was first arrested in this matter I was working in the Public Defender's Office. On May 17, 2011, RI Public Defender John Hardiman sent written notice to the RI Attorney General's Office that Pleau was willing to plead guilty to state murder charges in exchange for the maximum allowable sentence under state law: Life without the possibility of parole.(Not only do I personally recall Hardiman extending this plea offer to the AG's Office, but the Providence Journal obtained a copy of Hardiman's written notice/plea offer and posted it on their website.) However, just days later, the AG's office dismissed state murder charges, because charges were pending in Federal Court for the same murder. If convicted in Federal Court, Pleau could have received the death penalty. This set off a long, expensive jurisdictional battle, which apparently has now finally been resolved; Pleau will plead guilty in Federal Court and receive a sentence of Life without the possibility of parole.

Seriously? What a waste of time and money. This case could have been resolved two years ago with the identical result. All I can do is shake my head.

Posted by: Jennifer Fitzgerald | Jul 31, 2013 7:46:15 AM

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