4th Circ. Won't Upend Life Sentence Over Trump Phone Call

By Hailey Konnath | February 13, 2024, 9:28 PM EST ·

The Fourth Circuit refused Tuesday to disturb the life sentence of a man convicted of murder and drug trafficking, holding that even if former President Donald Trump said he intended to commute the sentence during a phone call, that intent isn't enough.

The three-judge panel affirmed a West Virginia federal court's ruling dismissing James Rosemond's petition for a writ of habeas corpus, agreeing with the lower court that declarations submitted by former Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown and his wife regarding a phone call they had advocating for Rosemond's release don't prove Trump indeed commuted Rosemond's sentence during that call.

Notably, the panel said the Browns' declarations are merely their "characterizations" and "beliefs" about what happened during the 2020 call. And even if the information contained in the declarations could be proven accurate and admitted to the case, none of the statements Trump reportedly made on the call reflect a "declaratory statement that President Trump had previously or was in that moment commuting Rosemond's sentence," the panel said.

"Instead, his statements are forward-looking, anticipating what he wanted to have happen at some point in the future," it said, adding that "the forward-looking, aspirational language President Trump allegedly used ... is fatal to Rosemond's assertion that the Browns' declarations attest to a completed act of presidential commutation."

The panel said that, even if Trump intended to eventually commute Rosemond's sentence, the judiciary doesn't have the authority to "fill the gap" between the phone call and his apparent failure to follow through with that intent.

"Rosemond's petition may have slipped through the cracks or something may have changed the president's mind after the telephone call," the Fourth Circuit said. "The reasons are beyond the scope of our review and ultimately irrelevant to whether we can grant relief. We cannot."

A decade ago, Rosemond was convicted of several offenses stemming from his role in drug trafficking and a murder, according to the decision. He's in the midst of serving multiple life sentences.

In 2015, Rosemond started campaigning for a presidential commutation of his sentence. He kept pushing for the commutation once Trump took office. That effort gained the backing of some "high-profile individuals," including Brown and Brown's wife, Monique, the Fourth Circuit said.

The Browns said they spoke with Trump on a Dec. 18, 2020, phone call, during which Trump decided to commute Rosemond's sentence "to the time he had already served in prison," according to the opinion. Specifically, the Browns said Trump stated he was "sitting here with counsel" and had "looked at everything" related to Rosemond's petition, per the panel. The Browns also claimed they could hear Trump speaking with other people in the room, saying, "I want him home for Christmas."

However, Trump never executed a written clemency warrant for Rosemond, despite doing so for 193 other individuals, the Fourth Circuit said.

Rosemond contends the phone call was all that was needed for him to walk free. In October 2021, he filed a petition in the Northern District of West Virginia asking the court to direct the warden of his penitentiary to release him, according to the decision. The district court sided with the warden and dismissed the petition.

In Tuesday's opinion, the Fourth Circuit said a writing "undoubtedly" isn't required as part of the president's exercise of clemency power. The district court erred in ruling otherwise, the panel said.

"Put another way, Rosemond's inability to come forward with a commutation warrant or equivalent writing from President Trump does not dictate the outcome of his … petition," it said.

Still, that modern commutation process is helpful context that does support denying Rosemond's petition, the panel said, and in any event, the declarations from the Browns regarding their phone call with Trump "do not prove what he claims they do."

The problem is the Browns don't possess the clemency power, and are not authorized to speak on Trump's behalf, it said.

"Therefore, it is President Trump's words — not the Browns' takeaways from them — that would be the sole basis for determining that Rosemond's sentence has been commuted," the Fourth Circuit said.

The government didn't immediately respond to requests for comment late Tuesday. Counsel for Rosemond declined to comment.

U.S. Circuit Judges G. Steven Agee, Stephanie Thacker and Allison Jones Rushing sat on the panel for the Fourth Circuit.

Rosemond is represented by Michael E. Rayfield and Mariham Yaf of Shook Hardy & Bacon LLP.

The government is represented by Michael Alan Rotker of the U.S. Department of Justice's Criminal Division.

The case is James Rosemond v. Richard Hudgins, case number 22-7188, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

--Editing by Caitlin Wolper.

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