US ordered to say if Pleau faces death penalty

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A judge has ordered the U.S. Department of Justice to indicate whether it plans to seek the death penalty in the case of an inmate at the center of a legal tug-of-war between Rhode Island’s governor and federal prosecutors.

U.S. District Court Judge William E. Smith issued the order on Wednesday in the case of Jason Pleau, who is accused of fatally shooting a gas station manager outside a Woonsocket bank in 2010. The judge set a Tuesday deadline, but federal authorities sought and were granted a one-week extension.

The order calls it “imperative” for the Justice Department to make the decision for scheduling reasons. Pleau’s trial is slated for September and October. If prosecutors plan to mount a death penalty prosecution, Smith says he expects requests will be made to postpone the trial.

If prosecutors don’t seek the death penalty for Pleau, there will be “considerable pressure” to prepare for a September trial, Smith wrote. The court will begin a different trial in November that is expected to last three to four months, meaning Pleau’s case could be put off until March 2013, he said.

Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Peter F. Neronha said it’s up to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to decide whether to seek the death penalty.

“We’re aware of the court’s order and we’ll comply,” Neronha said.

The defense has said Pleau is willing to plead guilty to charges in state court and serve a life sentence.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee has been fighting for nearly a year to prevent Pleau from being prosecuted in federal court, where the death penalty could be sought. Rhode Island doesn’t have capital punishment.

Chafee, an independent, had been refusing to turn Pleau over, but the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston ruled that the 34-year-old prisoner may stand trial in federal court. Chafee and Pleau petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to delay the proceedings but were turned down.

Pleau was surrendered to federal authorities and arraigned last month.

Robert Mann, Pleau’s lawyer, entered a not guilty plea on his behalf on charges he used a firearm during a crime of violence, robbery and conspiracy to commit robbery.

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