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Groups Call On Top Federal Official to Halt Death Penalty Efforts Against Jason Pleau

Posted: October 31, 2011|Category: Civil Rights Category: Criminal Justice

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Claiming that it violates the Department of Justice’s own standards, the RI ACLU and four other organizations have asked the United States Solicitor General to “halt any further efforts” by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Rhode Island to seek to impose the death penalty on Jason Wayne Pleau. The letter follows actions by that office to appeal a federal court ruling two weeks ago that Governor Lincoln Chafee acted lawfully in refusing to transfer Pleau’s custody to the federal government, which is seeking to prosecute him even though he has already agreed to serve a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Calling local U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha’s efforts “troubling,” the four-page letter to Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, Jr. argues that “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. Under the circumstances, any continuing efforts to impose the death penalty in this case create an impression of governmental vengeance, a role ill-befitting the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the notion of what a prosecutor’s role in our criminal justice system should be.” The letter was signed by the RI ACLU, the RI State Council of Churches, Progreso Latino, Providence Youth Student Movement, and the local chapter of the American Friends Service Committee.

Noting that 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, the groups called “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 groups denounced the effort as “especially appalling” because “the Department of Justice’s own standards offer no basis for this course of conduct.” The letter cites various sections of the DOJ’s United States Attorney’s Manual in support of that point. For example, one policy emphasizes that death penalty cases should be brought “only when the Federal interest in the prosecution is more substantial than the interests of the State or local authorities.” Another policy, dealing more generally with dual and successive prosecutions where the federal government and the state share jurisdiction to prosecute an offender, precludes federal prosecutions unless the matter involves “a substantial federal interest,” and the state prosecution “must have left that interest demonstrably unvindicated.”

In response to those guidelines, the letter states:

Even assuming that the broad federal prosecutorial discretion that [Neronha] possesses was an insufficient basis to eschew the death penalty, and even assuming further that this case involves a substantial federal interest, it is simply impossible to imagine how the ‘life without parole’ sentence agreement has ‘left that interest demonstrably unvindicated.’

As for the “substantial federal interest” purportedly involved in the case, the letter notes that the only rationale offered by the U.S. Attorney was “protecting federally insured banks” and the persons who use them. The letter states: “One need not be a supporter of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests to find it dismaying to learn that the primary reason for seeking the death penalty in a state that has rejected this punishment for over 150 years is to show solicitude for 'protecting federally insured banks' and the people who use them.”

Acknowledging the “heartrending” loss that the victim’s family has suffered and their interest in pursuing capital punishment against Pleau, the letter states that the federal government “has a much different and more dispassionate function to play in cases like this,” and it is not one of retribution.

The letter concludes:

It is distressing to see the federal government seeking to circumvent Rhode Island law in order to respond to a heinous crime with another act of barbarism and violence. It is even more distressing when one considers that this effort flies in the face of your agency’s own standards and guidelines. We therefore strongly urge you to end any efforts by the USARI and your Department to subject Jason Pleau to the death penalty.

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