A federal jury acquitted Ken Ravenell of racketeering, narcotics and obstruction charges Tuesday, but found the Baltimore defense attorney guilty of laundering drug money through a prestigious downtown law firm where he once worked.
Ravenell, 61, of Monkton, had hired veteran attorney Josh Treem and investigator Sean Gordon for his legal defense, but the two men became entangled in the case. The jury cleared them of wrongdoing Tuesday, finding Treem and Gordon not guilty of federal obstruction charges.
The three-week trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore has been closely watched by defense attorneys and law professors. The charges, particularly against Treem and Gordon, asked jurors to decide how far an attorney may go to defend his or her client.
“The prosecution of Josh Treem was an utter failure of judgment by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland,” said Robert Trout, the defense attorney for Treem, after the verdict.
Added Geremy Kamens, the attorney for Gordon, “This case went off the rails a long time ago ... these people were defending a client; they were not committing a crime.”
The acquittals incited sharp criticism of the U.S. Attorneys Office in Maryland. The office declined to comment on the verdict.
U.S. Attorney Erek Barron was recused from the matter because he represented someone tied to the case as a defense attorney prior to his appointment.
The office has long maintained a distinguished reputation and successfully prosecuted Baltimore’s biggest public corruption cases in recent years.
“I used to have a lot of respect for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. I was one of them, but this [prosecution] was wrong,” said Gerard Martin, a veteran attorney and former federal prosecutor, who congratulated Treem after the verdict.
Jurors deliberated three days before convicting Ravenell of one count of money laundering. Federal prosecutors presented witnesses and evidence to show Ravenell laundered drug money through the law firm of Murphy, Falcon & Murphy. He worked as a partner there, and prosecutors alleged he laundered more than $1 million through the firm.
In response to questions, William “Billy” Murphy Jr. issued a brief statement through a spokesman for his firm.
“We are truly saddened by today’s verdict. Kenny is a great human being and a nationally renowned trial lawyer. We continue to pray for Kenny and his family,” he said.
Ravenell left the courthouse quickly after the verdict. He declined to comment, and remains free to await sentencing on May 14.
Under the Maryland rules, his conviction will suspend his law license; he had continued to handle cases in state court. He faces a maximum of 20 years in federal prison, but experts say the sentencing guidelines will be far lower.
The conviction marks a dramatic downfall for Ravenell, who rose from humble beginnings to become one of the top criminal defense attorneys in Baltimore and argue cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He’s expected to appeal.
“I feel badly for Ken. I’ve known him for a number of years,” Treem said outside the courthouse. “He is a wonderful lawyer at the top of his profession.”
It’s unclear whether Treem could still face discipline from the Attorney Grievance Commission. Attorneys for the commission declined to comment. Meanwhile, Treem said the prosecution’s case was dangerous to criminal defense attorneys everywhere.
“It was threatening the way we do business, how we deal with our clients and how we deal with cases,” he said. “The jury’s verdict is loud and clear: This is not the way business should be done if you are a prosecutor.”
Defense attorneys worried that a guilty verdict against Treem and Gordon could have a chilling effect on their profession. Jurors were presented with the question of whether the men acted with corrupt intent rather than good faith in their legal work for Ravenell.
“There are plenty of lawyers out there watching this trial wondering, ‘If the government can do this to Josh Treem with his exalted reputation, how safe am I if all I’m trying to do is my job?” Trout told the jury.
While defense attorneys urged jurors to consider the legal principles at stake, assistant U.S. attorneys asked them instead to focus on the facts of the case.
“You don’t have any responsibility to the defense bar,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Wise told the jury. “Someone said there’s all these lawyers watching this trial — that’s totally inappropriate. That’s not your job. Your job is to focus on these men and their conduct. And their conduct is not what lawyers do ... lawyers can’t lie.”
Federal prosecutors charged Ravenell with helping his longtime client and convicted drug trafficker Richard Byrd to launder money. Ravenell opened ledgers to pass the drug money through the law firm, prosecutors told the jury.
He 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 source of the cash, prosecutors said. Ravenell did not testify during trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Derek Hines told the jury that 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.
At issue was whether Ravenell knew the money came from drugs. Byrd also ran a splashy events and marketing business, throwing parties with the biggest sports and hip-hop celebrities in the world. Ravenell believed the money came from this business — not the streets, his defense attorney argued.
Under the law, Ravenell was not absolved of wrongdoing if he deliberately turned a blind eye to the source of the money.
Still, the acquittals of racketeering, narcotics and obstruction charges means the jury did not accept the claims of prosecutors that Ravenell helped Byrd keep ahead of law enforcement in trafficking freights of marijuana across the country. Nor did the jury accept allegations that Ravenell sought to silence potential witnesses against Byrd by having them sign false statements.
Ravenell has handled some of the biggest criminal cases in Baltimore, including that of a West Baltimore gunman who shot and killed 7-year-old Taylor Hayes. He sued Baltimore County Police on behalf of the young son of Korryn Gaines, the Randallstown woman killed by officers during a standoff.
The prosecution’s case centered on the words of Richard Byrd; he testified over three days. A Jamaican national who moved to Maryland, Byrd is serving 26 years in federal prison on drug conspiracy charges. He was working for the government when prosecutors secretly recorded a conversation he had with Treem and Gordon in an Arizona jail.
In testimony this month, the convicted kingpin claimed he delivered bags of cash to Ravenell, including money to invest in a Maryland casino development. Defense lawyers hammered on Byrd’s credibility, with one attorney calling him “the least credible witness in the history of the federal courts.”
Among the trial spectators was Doug Colbert, a University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law professor. Colbert said he was troubled by Ravenell’s conviction for money laundering.
“To be convicted on testimony from a former client bodes ill for lawyers being able to develop a trusting relationship with clients,” he said.
Colbert also said prosecutors may have charged Treem and Gordon to put more pressure on Ravenell.
“Sometimes a prosecutor will bring charges against multiple defendants with the hopes of gaining leverage against the individual they feel most strongly in,” he said. “I wonder what the outcome would have been if Ken had been tried separately.”
The sprawling case traces back to 2014 when federal agents raided offices at the Murphy law firm. Ravenell left the firm shortly thereafter. Agents searched Ravenell’s new law office in June 2019 and searched Treem’s firm at the same time. A federal grand jury indicted Ravenell three months later, in September 2019. One year after that, the grand jury brought charges against Treem and Gordon.
Federal prosecutors accused Treem of obstructing justice for sending a federal judge a misleading letter about the case, particularly about the relationship between Ravenell and Byrd. During trial, Treem’s defense attorney shot back at prosecutors for nitpicking the letter, arguing Treem acted not with dishonesty but an “imperfect memory.”
Treem built a distinguished reputation over five decades as an attorney. A partner at the Brown, Goldstein & Levy firm, his career traces to the 1960s when he worked as a U.S. Department of Justice lawyer fighting for voting rights. He’s known for not shying from tough cases; he represented Lee Boyd Malvo, the teen convicted of murder for the D.C. sniper attacks.
The third defendant, Gordon, has worked as an investigator for law firms and the federal public defender. He’s investigated wrongful convictions for the nonprofit Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. He was accused of signing a false affidavit to make the same assertions as Treem’s letter.