Gov. Chafee Declines

December 29, 2011|The New York Times

Gov. Chafee Declines

Gov. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island took a principled position when he refused an order from a federal court to transfer a prisoner to federal custody for prosecution because that would expose the prisoner to the death penalty. As Mr. Chafee said in a statement, that is “a penalty consciously rejected by the State of Rhode Island, even for those guilty of the most heinous crimes.”

Rhode Island abolished the death penalty, most recently in 1984, and hasn’t executed anyone since 1852. And Governor Chafee rightly argues that the death penalty is abhorrent, costly and ineffective.

But the case raises a serious legal question: whether the governor’s refusal violates the Constitution and its clause making federal law, including a federal writ, “the supreme Law of the Land,” or whether, under the Interstate Agreement on Detainers, a governor has a right to refuse to hand over a prisoner to the federal government the same way he or she can refuse another state. In asking the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit to vindicate him, Mr. Chafee makes a good but not guaranteed case that he can deny Washington’s request.

Jason Wayne Pleau is in a Rhode Island prison for violating probation and other crimes. The Justice Department wants custody so it can prosecute him for robbing and murdering a gas-station manager at a Rhode Island bank. Under federal law, Mr. Pleau could be sentenced to death. Under state law, he offered to accept a life sentence without parole, which the governor favors. Mr. Chafee offered to transfer Mr. Pleau if the federal government would stop seeking the death penalty against him.

Last week, the First Circuit in Boston agreed to review the case as a full court. It vacated an October ruling in the governor’s favor. By a 2-to-1 majority, a panel held then that the Interstate Agreement on Detainers gives a governor the right not to transfer a prisoner if he thinks that it is against his state’s interests. It overturned a writ of a Federal District Court ordering the governor to surrender Mr. Pleau.

Mr. Chafee is the first governor to deny a request for custody from the federal government since the interstate agreement was passed in 1970. With the case presenting “a stark conflict between federal and state policy prerogatives on a matter of literally life-and-death significance,” as judges on the First Circuit panel noted this fall, the full court was right to leave Mr. Pleau in the state prison until it resolves the case after full deliberation.