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Feds Should Stop Forcing Death Penalty on Rhode Island

Steven Brown,
Executive Director,
ACLU of Rhode Island
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June 20, 2012

A man named John Gordon was hanged by the state of Rhode Island in 1845. The concern about the fairness of his execution was so great that seven years later, Rhode Island became the second state in the country to abolish the death penalty. No person in the state has been executed since. For inexplicable reasons, the U.S. Department of Justice seems hell-bent on changing that.

Almost two years ago, Jason Wayne Pleau robbed and murdered a gas station manager who was making a bank deposit in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. Pleau was taken into state custody on probation violation charges, and since then he has, through his attorneys, agreed to serve a sentence of life imprisonment without parole for this heinous crime. However, the U.S. Attorney doggedly pushed to have him turned over to federal custody (because the crime involved a bank) where he could be punished with the death penalty. Rhode Island’s governor, Lincoln Chafee, a staunch opponent of capital punishment, refused to turn over Pleau, but a federal appeals court recently ordered him to do so. On Monday, it was announced that the U.S. Government would indeed bring Pleau to trial and seek death.

The federal government’s blatant effort to impose on Rhode Island a policy that the state has rejected for more than a century-and-a-half is incredibly troubling and disheartening. It is not only directly contrary to, and an undermining of, Rhode Island’s strong and long-standing policy and practice against the imposition of capital punishment, but it is fundamentally at odds with the Department of Justice’s own guidelines and standards.

According to those standards, where the federal government and the state share jurisdiction to prosecute an offender, federal prosecution is supposed to occur only when the matter involves “a substantial federal interest,” and the state prosecution “must have left that interest demonstrably unvindicated.” Even assuming that this case somehow involves a substantial federal interest different from most homicides, it is impossible to imagine how a “life without parole” sentence agreement has “left that interest demonstrably unvindicated.”

The victim’s family has publicly stated that they would like to see the death penalty imposed against Pleau. We cannot minimize the tragedy they have suffered, but the federal government has a much different and more dispassionate function to play in cases like this. However, the eagerness and determination with which they have pursued the death penalty in this case suggests an agency more concerned with retribution than with justice.

We know that the death penalty is not a deterrent, that it is imposed in a discriminatory, arbitrary and irrational manner, and that it remains capable of convicting innocent people. Even more fundamentally, as part of a civilized society, it should be unacceptable for our government to respond to a heinous crime with another act of barbarism and violence. In the past two years alone, Illinois and Connecticut joined 15 other states in abolishing the death penalty. It is particularly unseemly for the Department of Justice to be vigorously pursuing the death penalty in a case, and in a state, where imposition of the ultimate sentence short of death is already a foregone conclusion. It provides yet another example of why national abolition of capital punishment remains such an important goal.

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