The United Kingdom, Canada, Mexico, the Netherlands, Switzerland and South Africa all refuse to extradite individuals to the U.S. without assurances that the death penalty will not be sought. Rhode Island is trying to join them.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee refused a request to transfer murder suspect Jason Pleau to federal officials last month on the grounds that doing so would expose Pleau to the possibility of the death penalty. “Given Rhode Island's longstanding opposition to the death penalty, I could not in good conscience voluntarily turn over any citizen of this state to another jurisdiction where a sentence of death could be imposed,” Chafee said in a statement. Rhode Island has not carried out an execution since 1845.
Pleau is accused of the premeditated murder and robbery of a gas station employee. The victim, David Main, was killed near a bank where he intended to deposit money from the Shell station where he worked. Two Massachusetts residents are also charged in connection with the crime; one is accused of driving a getaway car and the other of serving as a lookout.
The federal indictment against Pleau includes charges of robbery affecting interstate commerce, conspiracy to commit robbery affecting interstate commerce, and discharging a firearm during a crime of violence resulting in a death. However, because Pleau has already agreed to plead guilty to the charges brought against him by Rhode Island in exchange for a sentence of life without parole, the federal charges are superfluous. The feds’ involvement appears to be motivated solely by the desire to impose the death penalty.
A district court originally overrode Chafee’s refusal, ruling that the governor lacked the power to refuse to surrender a criminal defendant. The First Circuit Court of Appeals, however, granted a stay and is currently reviewing the case. In a surprising development, Chafee got the appeals court to allow him enter the fray, joining Pleau as an appellant. Justifying his legal interest in the case, Chafee said that the sovereignty of the state of Rhode Island was at issue. “The state has a strong interest in ensuring the application of Rhode Island law to Rhode Island citizens in criminal matters occurring within the state of Rhode Island,” the governor said in a statement.
Pending the appeals court’s decision, Pleau remains in a state prison, where he is serving an 18-year sentence for violating his parole in a separate case.
The fact that Pleau was already on parole for another offense makes him an unsympathetic defendant, which is probably one reason federal prosecutors are pursuing the case. There’s also the convenient fact that Pleau is white. That allows prosecutors to defend capital punishment, appearing tough on crime while avoiding awkward questions about the system’s racial bias. According to a 2007 study of death sentences in Connecticut conducted by Yale University School of Law, African-American defendants are three times more likely than white defendants to receive the death penalty in cases with white victims. Other jurisdictions have similar biases.
But the fact that the Pleau case does not raise the issue of racial prejudice does not mitigate the numerous other problems with capital punishment.
A U.S. state’s refusal to cooperate with the federal government on the grounds that it cannot be trusted to respect basic human rights ought to be a wake-up call. By continuing to impose the death penalty, the federal government and the 34 states that retain capital punishment statutes distance themselves from both the remaining states and the majority of developed nations, putting themselves instead in the company of such countries as Iran, China, North Korea and Saudi Arabia.
The reason more than two-thirds of the world’s countries have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice ought to be clear. As former Supreme Court Justices William J. Brennan. Jr., and Thurgood Marshall concluded in the 1972 case of Furman v. Georgia, capital punishment is “cruel and unusual” in all applications, and as such is in violation of the Eight Amendment. As the higher homicide rates of states with capital punishment demonstrate, the death penalty does not serve as an effective deterrent. It exists only as a form of state-sanctioned vengeance. The true force of that vengeance, furthermore, falls not on those who have committed crimes but on the families of executed criminals, who suffer long after the accused has been buried.
Even if someone could convincingly show that capital punishment somehow fell outside of the category of “cruel and unusual” punishment as established by the Eighth Amendment, its irreversibility alone ought to be sufficient argument against its practice. The Death Penalty Information Center has compiled a list of 138 individuals sentenced to death but later exonerated. Given that error rate, it is almost certain that some of those executed who were never exonerated were innocent as well. In the absence of an infallible system, which as fallible human beings we can never create, we must retain the ability to fix our mistakes.
I suspect that the U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island, Peter F. Neronha, knows all of this. So, I believe, do Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama. But in their eagerness to appease a public more interested in punishment than justice, they are willing to ignore what they know. Chafee, on the other hand, has shown that he will not overlook injustice, even when that means putting himself on the same side of the courtroom as a confessed killer.
States, such as Rhode Island, that have found capital punishment incompatible with justice are obliged to resist it, just as civilized nations around the world resist it. Chafee, it seems, understands that. I hope that, by sticking to his principles, he is able to score a victory for his state and for a 21st century concept of justice that most of the United States has yet to adopt.