City defense 'MVP' visits legal scene's big league


It was the case of the stolen diary and ensuing girl fight. Presenting arguments in the living room trial were 8-year-old Christia and her 16-year-old sister, Dana. Two other siblings and Mom made up the jury. Dad, Kenneth W. Ravenell, presided as judge.

The verdict: Both daughters did so well that their punishments were reduced. "I remember being, like, 'Wow, my dad is always a lawyer,'" says Christia Ravenell, now an 18-year-old sophomore at Howard University and just maybe, her dad hopes, a future law school student.

Ken Ravenell, one of Baltimore's busiest and most highly regarded defense attorneys, is, indeed, always thinking like a lawyer. That's why he says he is excited to have the chance to make his mark by arguing today before the U.S. Supreme Court in a case that could reshape Miranda rights, a person's right to remain silent and to consult with a lawyer before speaking with police.

"'Argue' is the wrong word," Ravenell says about his appearance in the country's highest court. "It's really a discussion of how the law works. The back-and-forth aspect of a legal discussion, answering the justices' questions - this is the essence of law."

Ravenell, 46, says he has been sleeping about four hours a night for the past few months as he prepares his case. His client is accused in the 2002 carjacking and killing in the Annapolis historic district. But Leeander Jerome Blake, now 20, has never been tried because courts have ruled that a statement he gave police was obtained illegally.

Ravenell has been keeping up his regular workload, too, as a partner at the downtown firm Schulman, Treem, Kaminkow, Gilden and Ravenell, where he simply does not believe the secretary when she insists he has 1,200 open cases.

"It can't be that high," he tells her over the phone. "That would scare me."

No one would describe the mild-mannered Ravenell as a showman. He has sought advice on the Blake case only from a few close friends and respected colleagues. He wouldn't even consider buying a new suit to wear in Washington - "That's so tacky," he says.

And although today he has reached what most lawyers would view as a career pinnacle, he's not happy about the circumstances because his client has nothing to gain.

Ravenell has kept Blake out of court by successfully arguing that an alleged confession the then-17-year-old made to police came after he had asked for an attorney. An Annapolis police officer handed him charging documents indicating that he faced the death penalty and said, "I bet you want to talk now, huh?" He did.

The Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, agreed with an Anne Arundel Circuit judge's ruling that the officer violated one of the core tenets of Miranda - that police cannot try to persuade someone who has asked for a lawyer to change his mind - and that there was no way to undo the error, rendering Blake's statement unusable.

Blake's case dissolved and can be revived only if the Maryland attorney general's office prevails in its argument today. The Supreme Court's decision could take months. Co-defendant Terrence Tolbert was convicted in January and is serving a life sentence.

A defense attorney for all but three years of his two-decade career, Ravenell says he sees Miranda as "a bright-line rule," meaning that once police violate it, there is no way to make a defendant's statement legal. Some justices, such as Sandra Day O'Connor, have signaled in prior decisions that Miranda should be less stringent.

Fellow lawyers say the Blake case points to one of Ravenell's greatest strengths: He can look at hundreds of approaches in seeking the best way to win. Sometimes this can turn a loss into a victory.

Ravenell had allowed himself a slight smile as he stood in a courthouse hallway in April, reading Baltimore Circuit Judge Stuart R. Berger's ruling to overturn the sexual child abuse convictions of Maurice Blackwell, a former Catholic priest.

Although a Baltimore jury had convicted Blackwell in February, Ravenell quickly filed a motion for a new trial, arguing that, among other problems, two police witnesses had improperly made references to "other victims" of the priest.

Berger agreed, the convictions were erased and instead of seeking a new trial, Baltimore prosecutors dropped the case.

Ravenell says he doesn't keep track of victories and losses, but he does get a feel for when he has been on a losing streak. "There haven't been many of those," he says.

Friend and longtime defense attorney William H. Murphy Jr. says Ravenell's record has made him the "MVP" of Baltimore defense attorneys every year for the past decade. Ravenell successfully defended Murphy on charges of disorderly conduct in 1998 in Anne Arundel County.

A Baltimore jury acquitted another of Ravenell's high-profile clients, Damon Anthony Williams, a disc jockey accused in the 2003 stabbing death of a Morgan State University student.

Erin Murphy Ehman worked with Ravenell for more than eight years. She says he's the most demanding boss she ever had.

Ehman remembers getting a 5:40 a.m. phone call from Ravenell on her husband's birthday a year and a half ago. It was Ravenell, who began by saying, "I've been waiting to call you."

"I thought, 'Waiting since when, 3 a.m.?'" she says. Ravenell had an idea on a case that was in trial and couldn't wait to get her started on the research.

"Many times, I dragged myself into the office at 5:30 a.m., cursing him the whole way," she says. Ehman left in February to work on her own and spend more time with her baby.

Born and raised somewhere in the middle of 11 children in Cross, S.C., near Charleston, Ravenell has lost much of his Southern accent, though "idea" does come out more as "idear." His parents were sharecroppers, and he grew up picking cotton and vegetables.

He knew he wanted to be a lawyer by the time he was in eighth grade, but he never met one until he became a student at South Carolina State University. He picked the University of Maryland School of Law because he has long been a huge Terps fan, particularly of the basketball team.

Christia Ravenell and her siblings will sit in the gallery today, silently cheering on their dad. Ravenell says he will catch up on sleep afterward. Maybe he'll even read one of the John Grisham thrillers that his daughter says he loves, though she adds, "My father can't finish a book. He's too busy."

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