SCOTUS Justice Rejects RI Gov. Chafee’s Stand Against Death Penalty

Today, Justice Breyer denied a petition from Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee (I-RI) to delay the transfer of a Rhode Island inmate to federal authorities because of the possibility that he would face a death-penalty prosecution. Chafee appealed to the Supreme Court after a federal circuit court refused to delay a decision requiring Rhode Island to turn over the inmate, Jason Pleu, to federal authorities. Federal prosecutors want custody of Pleu in order to try him for the death of a gas station manager during a robbery in 2010 despite the fact that that kind of case is usually tried by state officials. Chafee has refused to turn over Pleu because under federal law Pleu may face the death penalty if convicted.

Rhode Island has a long history of standing against the death penalty. The state has not executed anyone since 1852, and officially abolished the death penalty in 1984. Chafee argues that the Interstate Agreement on Detainers Act, which governs prisoner transfer, allows him to refuse to surrender Pleu to federal authorities. Earlier this month, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Rhode Island was required to surrender Pleu to federal authorities, and this week, the same court decided 3-2 not to delay the decision until Chafee and Pleu had a chance to appeal to the Supreme Court. The transfer of Pleu may happen as soon as next Tuesday.

Federal officials have refused to indicate whether or not they will seek the death penalty in Pleu’s case. The rate of executions at the federal level are much closer to the rate in Rhode Island than the one in Texas; no one has been executed by the federal government in 9 years, and given the choice between a death sentence and life in prison, juries at the federal level choose life in prison at a rate of more than two to one.

–Alex Brown