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Rhode Island governor relents in clash over death penalty

By Barbara Goldberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, who had refused to turn over to federal authorities a prisoner facing the death penalty, said on Thursday he would comply with a court order compelling him to do so.

In what may be the first such case ever, Chafee, an independent who opposes the death penalty, balked at federal efforts to gain custody of Jason Pleau, who was indicted by a federal grand jury for murder.

Pleau, in his 30s, is accused in the shooting death of David Main on September 20, 2010 in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, as he attempted to make a bank deposit from the gas station he managed, according to the FBI website.

If convicted of the federal murder charge, Pleau could face the death penalty.

Chafee initially refused to turn over Pleau to federal authorities, noting Rhode Island's opposition to capital punishment and one of the earliest states to abolish it.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island then issued a writ of habeas corpus ordering the transfer and Chafee on Thursday said he would comply.

"Now that a federal judge has had an opportunity to hear argument from the parties, has considered the important principals of federalism at stake, and has issued a comprehensive order, I respect the process and have no objections to the writ," Chafee said in a statement.

It was the first time in memory that a state has faced off with federal authorities over capital punishment, according to Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

"I don't know of any other governor who has refused the feds a prisoner over the death penalty," Dieter said.

Chafee said he hoped his outspoken opposition in the case would have some influence in sparing Pleau from execution.

"When the Department of Justice reviews this case to determine whether the death penalty is appropriate, I remain confident that Rhode Island's steadfast opposition to the death penalty will be taken into account," Chafee said in the statement.

He noted that Pleau has already agreed to plead guilty to murder and accept the harshest sentence under state law, life in prison without the possibility of parole.

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Greg McCune)

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