Robyn and Chad Smotherman – he was convicted along with Chris Rowland in a money laundering scheme – are escorted from their Warrior Drive home by attorney Will Fraley in September 2007. (TMP file photo)
Rutherford County Sheriff Robert Arnold pushed back Wednesday against criticism he has received for writing a character letter on behalf of Chris Rowland, who was sentenced Aug. 19 to two years in prison for money laundering.
Arnold said when he wrote the letter on Rowland’s behalf, he did so as “a friend and family member.”
“His mom was an Arnold,” he said. “I used to have family reunions at their house.”
Rowland’s mother, Christine, is the sibling of Arnold’s grandfather.
“I’ve had people turn their back on me when I was at my lowest, even knowing I was right in what I did at the time,” Arnold said. “I find it offensive because as Christians we are taught to forgive. He told me he did wrong. He accepted responsibility.”
Rowland was ordered to serve 28 months and two years of supervised probation for laundering more than $300,000 in drug money over a four-year period, beginning in 2004.
“You are a good guy who did something stupid,” said Judge Aleta Trauger, who presides in the U.S. District Court of Middle Tennessee, before sentencing Rowland.
“Your remorse is very genuine,” she said. “I do not enjoy sending you, or anyone else who appears before the court, to prison. But, people have to pay for their behavior… It makes no sense why you would commit these crimes. I’ve never had a defendant before me that has done so many good deeds.”
Rowland pled guilty in March to five counts of money laundering and conspiracy to launder illicit funds.
“I pled guilty, and I am guilty,” Rowland said, before he was sentenced. “I let this develop into something that I never planned – never should have done. I wish I had a reason [as to] why I let myself get into this situation.”
The courtroom was packed with supporters, the majority of which were members of his immediate family.
“I want to apologize to my family because I wasn’t brought up that way, and I’ve hurt the ones closest to me,” Rowland said, as he began sobbing. “The hardest part is my parents, wife and kids are being punished and put through pain. It already feels like a life sentence. The community has disowned me… It’s not enough to say I’m sorry.”
Federal prosecutors had recommended a 30- to 37-month sentence in exchange for a plea deal. Four additional counts of money laundering and two counts of weapons charges were dropped as part of the agreement, according to court documents.
In light of the fact that he could have faced up to 20 years in prison for each count, Trauger told Rowland he was fortunate to have defense attorney Peter J. Strianse representing him.
“This is an amazingly favorable deal – it’s remarkable,” she said. “I don’t know why the government chose to dismiss the weapons charges. These are very serious crimes. You are lucky.”
The decision was handed down after an hour of Rowland’s testimony during a presentence report, which is conducted to help a judge determine an appropriate sentence.
In felony cases, a defendant’s criminal history, mental and physical health, and any other mitigating circumstances are compiled to provide a judge a complete picture of the person’s life.
Strianse read excerpts from some of the 35 character letters that were submitted as part of the presentence report, including the one by Arnold.
County Commissioner Matthew Young and Bernard Salandy, superintendent of the Rutherford County Correctional Work Center, were among those who wrote letters.
Young could not be reached for comment by press deadline, and Salandy would not publicly comment Friday on the matter.
During cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Harold McDonough of Nashville grilled Rowland about Arnold’s letter.
“I can’t reconcile why the chief law enforcement official would write a letter on behalf of a convicted felon,” McDonough said.
He also questioned Rowland about a $1,000 donation that was made to Arnold’s 2010 campaign, in an attempt to determine what prompted the sheriff to write the letter.
Rowland acknowledged that his family did make the contribution but denied any personal involvement.
“He never attended a single campaign function,” Arnold said during Wednesday’s interview.
He added that Rowland never helped in any way, financially or otherwise.
After the sentencing hearing, Strianse defended Arnold, noting that despite outward appearances, Murfreesboro is still a small town – many residents are either related or have known each other since childhood.
“It was just a character letter,” Strianse said. “He has known [Rowland] for many, many years, and [the letter] was just vouching for his character… The sheriff was very clear that he had recognized that [Rowland] made a mistake.”
Despite the blowback, Arnold said he did not regret writing the letter.
“Would I do it again?” he said. “Yes, I would.”