WOONSOCKET, R.I. – “Smiley,” a skinny state inmate known behind bars for his missing two front teeth, is at the center of a legal tug-of-war between federal officials who could pursue a death penalty prosecution against him and Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a staunch death penalty opponent.

Jason Pleau, 33, a braggadocios BB-gun robber, petty thief and troublemaker who has spent nearly half of his life in prison, straddles the death penalty issue because of the shooting death of a man outside a Woonsocket bank last year.

Pleau allegedly shot gas station manager David Main, 49, on Sept. 20 outside a Citizens Bank — which, because it is federally insured, gives the Rhode Island U.S. Attorney’s office the authority to prosecute Pleau.

Rhode Island has no death penalty, and Chafee, who pardoned the last man to be executed in his state more than 150 years ago, says he has the final say over who will try the case.

The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston is now considering whether to side with Chafee and keep Pleau in state custody or surrender him to federal officials. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has not said if he will seek the death penalty.

In a statement, Chafee said his pursuit of the case has nothing to do with the inmate at the center of the fight.

“My interest in the Pleau case is not about Mr. Pleau as an individual. It is in protecting the sovereignty and the legitimate public policy choices of our state,” Chafee said. “Rhode Island has a long history of opposition to the death penalty, and it has not been used here since 1845.”

Chafee said he would be allowing “our state’s opposition to capital punishment to be subverted” if Pleau were turned over to federal authorities.

“Because Mr. Pleau has already agreed to plead guilty on state charges to life in prison without parole — Rhode Island’s harshest penalty — the federal government’s primary motivation appears to be exposing him to the death penalty,” the governor said.

Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Peter F. Neronha said in a statement that his office has claimed federal jurisdiction in the case from the beginning.

He said his decision reflected the commitment of his office and the Justice Department to protect banks and the people who use them. “It was not based on the potential punishment anyone ultimately charged in connection with the case might face,” Neronha said.

The federal government has executed three people since 2001, when it resumed executions after a 38-year suspension. That includes Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

Pleau’s criminal career began — and came to a deadly end, police say — on a busy thoroughfare in his hometown 15 years later.

Police say Pleau confessed to killing Main when he was caught in New York three days later. His co-defendants, Jose A. Santiago and Kelley M. Lajoie, both of Springfield, Mass., have pleaded not guilty.

The bank branch is on Diamond Hill Avenue, the street where police say Pleau, then 18, walked into Caldor’s in 1996 and shoplifted a $16.99 Trapper Keeper notebook.

But on Sept. 20, authorities said Pleau picked up where he’d left off as a teenager, demanding more than $12,000 in receipts Main planned to deposit from the Shell station on Diamond Hill Avenue. Main died of a single .38-caliber bullet wound to the head.