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Woonsocket to be Focal Point in Looming Death Penalty Debate

A state Senator has filed a bill to allow executions for first-degree murder

Woonsocket to be Focal Point in Looming Death Penalty Debate

More than 160 years have passed since Rhode Island last executed a criminal, but a 2010 murder on the streets of Woonsocket now has some pushing to bring back the death penalty.

State Sen. John Tassoni has filed a bill to reinstate the death penalty for first degree murder, a move he says will discourage violent crime and deliver justice to victims' families. He also has plans to file a bill that would put the death penalty question on the ballot.

"What we have now isn't working," said Tassoni, a Democrat who represents Smithfield and North Smithfield. "Right now this country is upside down. There are too many people with no morals, no respect. Will the governor sign it? No, I don't think so. Do we have the two-thirds to override that? That remains to be seen."

Interviews with Woonsocket residents show his effort could gain strong support in northern Rhode Island. "An eye for an eye," said city resident Dan Trower, while drinking coffee at . "If you take a life, you should pay with your own."

Tassoni said he filed his bill partly in response to public outrage over the death of Lincoln resident David D. Main. Main was shot and killed on Sept. 20, 2010, while bringing cash from the gas station where he worked as manager to a branch on Woonsocket's Diamond Hill Road.  The alleged killer, Jason W. Pleau, 34, of Providence was arrested a short time later. Jose A. Santiago, 34, and Kelley M. Lajoie, 33, both of Chicopee, MA, were charged with assisting Pleau in the botched robbery.

Because the killing occurred in the bank parking lot, and bank robbery is considered a federal crime, US Attorney Peter Neronha is in federal court, where the possible sentences for first degree murder include death. For the past eight months, however, Gov. Lincoln Chafee has the defendant to federal authorities. He wants Pleau tried in state court, where the maximum sentence would be life imprisonment.

In a written statement after an October hearing, the governor described the death penalty as "long rejected by the people of Rhode Island" and said he was seeking to protect "the sovereignty and laws of the state I was elected to govern."

The legal tug-of-war between the state and federal government will resume again in April, when the U.S First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston is scheduled to hear the case.

Tassoni said he filed his bill after watching Chafee's efforts. "If I had the chance to talk this over with the governor," he said, "I would ask him, if your son or daughter were murdered this way, what would you do? Would you still say no to giving up this guy? If you did a poll, I think you'd find 80 percent of the people in this state would say yes to giving him up." 

But Chafee's stand has been applauded by the number of Rhode Island civil rights groups, the ACLU, and in the editorial pages of the New York Times. And Roman Catholic leaders are already speaking out against Tassoni's proposal.

"Our modern society can now protect itself from violent killers by the sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole," reads a recent editorial in The Rhode Island Catholic, a publication of the Diocese of Providence. "Therefore state sanctioned killing by execution can no longer be morally justifiable defense to murder. Further, the fundamental Catholic teaching that all human life deserves dignity and respect includes even the lives of violent killers."

With 63 percent of Rhode Islanders identifying themselves as Roman Catholic, that would seem a strong obstacle to the measure. But ask around in Woonsocket - where church steeples dominate the landscape - and you'll find many favor executions.

"It will make a criminal think twice about robbing someone with a gun," said Wayne Rufo, while waiting at a Main Street bus station. "He'll know that if it goes off, he could die, too."

"I have mixed feelings, because an innocent person could be executed by mistake," added his friend Kim Nevins. "But sometimes it seems like it's the only way to prevent some guys from killing."

There were harsh words for the governor from some dining at Paul's Family restaurant. "Chafee is wrong," said customer Larry Shulkin. "He should let the government have the expense of the prosecution and imprisonment."

"When they kill, they should go out," added Dave O'Neill, a retiree. "Then others would learn."

Carol Kane, cook, waitress, and manager, was divided on the issue. "I recently saw a news show about three innocent guys who were locked up for 20 years in Tennessee, and then the court said they were innocent," she said. "That makes you think twice. But I think Chafee should have left it alone - it brought up too many painful feelings for the victim's family."

The last execution in Rhode Island took place in 1845, and was met with a loud public outcry. Many people believed the condemned man, John Gordon, was innocent, and that Yankee jurors were influenced by anti-Irish and anti-immigrant prejudice. The state abolished the death penalty in 1954, brought it back two decades later, and abolished it again in 1984.

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