September 26, 2012

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The Rhode Island ACLU has today filed a “friend of the court” brief in the U.S. Supreme Court, supporting Governor Lincoln Chafee’s legal  appeal seeking to prevent the surrender of murder suspect Jason Wayne Pleau to federal authorities to face a potential death penalty. The brief was joined by  a number of other organizations, including Federal Defender offices for Rhode Island, Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire; the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and its RI counterpart; and the National Legal Aid & Defender Association.

In May, by a 3-2 vote, the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston rejected Governor Chafee’s argument  that, under a federal  law known as the Interstate Agreement on Detainers (IAD), he had the legal right to refuse to turn over Pleau, who has already agreed to serve a life sentence without parole under state law, to federal authorities. The split ruling overturned an earlier panel decision that had supported Chafee.

The IAD governs the transfer of inmates among states and with the federal government. The technical legal question in the case  concerns whether the United States can independently use another legal mechanism – a writ of habeas corpus – to obtain custody of Pleau despite the Governor’s invocation of the IAD to refuse to transfer a prisoner from state to federal custody. In so doing, the ACLU brief argues, the federal government unlawfully “received the benefits of lodging a detainer without fulfilling its obligations as a party to the IAD.” 

Rhode Island was the second state in the Union to abolish the death penalty in 1852, and it has not carried out an execution since that time. In a letter previously sent to the U.S. Solicitor General, the RI ACLU denounced as “inappropriately gratuitous” the U.S. Attorney’s effort “to impose on our state a policy that Rhode Island eliminated more than a century and a half ago.” The ACLU further argued that the Department of Justice’s own standards on when to pursue the death penalty “offer no basis for this course of conduct.”

The “friend of the court” brief was filed by volunteer attorneys at the law firm of Foley Hoag LLP in Boston.

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