How far should a lawyer go to protect his client?
Should he warn him off phones to evade wiretaps? Should he help him move money? Where’s the line between criminal defense and an accessory?
These are questions before a federal jury in the conspiracy trial of Kenneth Ravenell, a prominent Baltimore defense attorney. Federal prosecutors accuse Ravenell of crossing the line with one longtime client, a Baltimore marijuana kingpin, helping to launder money, tamper with witnesses and advise drug dealers how to stay ahead of law enforcement.
“No one is above the law. Having a law license is not a license to lie,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Derek Hines told the jury. “It’s not a license to break the law. It’s not a license to launder money. It’s not a license to obstruct justice.”
Federal prosecutors presented closing arguments Wednesday in the three-week trial in Baltimore’s U.S. District Court. The case has brought veteran lawyers, retired judges and convicted drug dealers into the courtroom as witnesses and spectators; it’s been closely watched by Baltimore’s legal community.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Hines and Leo Wise have been accused of overreaching with the case and prosecuting defense attorneys for counseling their clients. Ravenell and co-defendant Joshua Treem are veteran attorneys, known well in Baltimore. A third defendant, Sean Gordon, works for law firms; he’s a respected investigator.
Doug Colbert, a University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law professor, called it one of the — if not the most — important criminal trials ever held in Maryland.
“The outcome will alter the work of criminal defense lawyers,” said Colbert, who has watched the trial. “There’s just so much that lawyers are asked to do when they are defending people, and that’s a challenging issue for jurors to evaluate.”
The case centers on Ravenell’s relationship with Richard Byrd. In the 1990s, Ravenell defended Byrd in criminal cases. Byrd rose from a Park Heights stick-up boy to a drug kingpin shipping loads of marijuana across the country. Byrd shipped 66,000 pounds of marijuana through one freight company alone, prosecutors said. He made a fortune.
Ravenell helped Byrd launder the money through the prestigious law firm Murphy, Falcon & Murphy in Baltimore, federal prosecutors told the jury. Ravenell worked as a partner there, and he opened ledgers to move money through the firm, prosecutors said.
The defense attorney allegedly kept some of the money as “legal fees” and distributed the rest back to Byrd through businesses and investments — a complicated and layered scheme to hide the origins of the cash, prosecutors said. Ravenell is charged with money laundering and conspiracy. He did not testify during the trial.
“This law firm is not a bank, it’s a law firm,” said Hines, the prosecutor.
When Ravenell deposited money from Byrd in a personal bank account, the checks were signed by a pseudonym, Hines told the jury. The prosecutor said a member of the drug crew met Ravenell at the restaurant Linwoods in Owings Mills and handed him a Louis Vuitton bag stuffed with $50,000 in cash.
Still, Byrd also ran a lucrative events and marketing business, throwing parties with some of the biggest sports and hip-hop celebrities in the world such as Sean “Diddy” Combs and LeBron James.
Ravenell believed the money came from the business — not the streets, his defense attorney argued.
“Ken Ravenell had every reason to believe the money that came into the Murphy firm was legitimate,” attorney Peter White told the jury.
Both sides argued over whether Ravenell knew where the money came from — a key issue in the case. The judge instructed jurors that the law does not absolve Ravenell of wrongdoing if he deliberately turned a blind eye to the source of the money.
According to federal prosecutors, Byrd’s drug crew called Ravenell “short man” because he’s 5-foot-6 and “Johnny Vegas” because he liked to throw money around, but defense attorneys disputed this, arguing the nicknames referred instead to members of the drug crew.
Byrd testified over three days of the trial. He’s serving 26 years in federal prison on drug conspiracy charges. Ravenell’s attorney warned jurors Byrd couldn’t be trusted and hammered on inconsistencies in his testimony. The attorney went as far as calling him the “least credible witness in the history of the federal courts.”
“If you don’t believe Richard Byrd, if you think he’s a liar, you cannot convict,” White told the jury. “Richard Byrd is not only a drug dealer, he’s also a conman. He’s really good at lying; he’s good at conning people.”
Ravenell, of Monkton, rose to become one of the top defense attorneys in Baltimore and argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. He handled high-profile cases such as that of the West Baltimore gunman who shot and killed 7-year-old Taylor Hayes in 2018. Ravenell sued Baltimore County Police on behalf of the young son of Korryn Gaines, the Randallstown woman killed by officers during a barricade in 2016. Now, Ravenell faces as much as life in prison if convicted.
Treem, of Columbia, works as a partner at the downtown law firm of Brown, Goldstein & Levy. He won a $9 million city settlement for a Baltimore man who spent 20 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Treem’s clients included Lee Boyd Malvo, the teen convicted of murder for the D.C. sniper attacks. The veteran attorney testified Monday that before private practice he worked as a U.S. Department of Justice attorney fighting for voting rights in the 1960s.
During his testimony, Treem said the government’s case rests on a witness so dishonest he would never even think of putting him on the stand.
Gordon, of Crownsville, worked as an investigator for law firms and the federal public defender in Maryland. He investigated cases of wrongful convictions for the nonprofit Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. Defense attorneys for the three men presented a who’s who of the Baltimore legal community, including two former state’s attorneys also state and federal judges, as character witnesses for the three defendants.
Federal prosecutors spent weeks presenting witnesses and evidence to support charges that Ravenell carried out the racketeering conspiracy and money laundering scheme. They accuse Treem of obstructing justice for allegedly sending a misleading letter about the case, particularly the relationship between Ravenell and Byrd, to a federal judge.
Treem wrote the letter; Gordon signed an affidavit making the same assertions as the letter. The two co-defendants are charged with conspiracy, obstruction and falsifying records.
Defense attorneys for Treem and Gordon are to present their closing arguments Thursday.