At a murder trial in Baltimore County, Kenneth W. Ravenell had a bed rolled into the courtroom, climbed into it and demonstrated how his client, who he argued was a battered woman, killed her boyfriend. He stayed in the bed, legs crossed, to finish his closing argument.
“Being in front of a jury and getting a chance to strut and show off and talk to the jury: that’s my element,” Ravenell said in 2011. “Inside those lines is my football field, me and the courtroom, battling with judges, battling with opponents. That’s it. That’s what I love.”
Born in South Carolina and raised picking cotton, Ravenell became one of the most brilliant and successful attorneys in Baltimore, once successfully arguing a case before the U.S. Supreme Court and handling complex, high-profile cases around the country.
But starting Monday, in the biggest legal fight of his life, Ravenell will likely be silent — sitting beside his team of attorneys at the defense table in Baltimore’s U.S. District Court. Federal prosecutors have charged him with racketeering and money laundering for allegedly assisting a longtime client, convicted drug trafficker Richard Byrd.
Prosecutors have charged another well-respected, veteran attorney, Joshua Treem, in the case, accusing him of obstruction of justice while representing Ravenell.
Other high-profile Baltimore attorneys, including William H. “Billy” Murphy Jr. and Ivan Bates, as well as U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett, could be called as witnesses.
The prosecution, focusing on the conduct of attorneys, has implications beyond this case, said Ronald Weich, dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law.
“It is very unusual for defense lawyers to face criminal prosecution for their conduct in representing clients. So, this case is going to be watched closely, not just by Maryland legal community, but lawyers across the country,” Weich said. “This is high-stakes stuff. The outcome is going to influence the behavior of lawyers in very significant respects.”
Ravenell is known as a flashy lawyer, a product of his success. He came from humble beginnings, however, the seventh of 11 children raised by a pastor and a Sunday school teacher on a sharecropper’s farm in a small town east of Charleston, South Carolina.
In elementary school, he said, the work of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall of Baltimore inspired him to want to be a lawyer. He came north to attend University of Maryland School of Law, where he impressed professors, then started his career working for a few years in the office of the Baltimore state’s attorney.
Ravenell then moved to a job at the firm of Schulman, Treem, Kaminkow & Gilden, where he took on a high volume of trials and became known for winning.
When Murphy, a Baltimore legal titan, was arrested on charges of trespassing and resisting arrest at a district court commissioner’s office in 1998, he hired Ravenell to defend him. Murphy was acquitted.
“First, I would like to thank God, and a very close second is my lawyer,” Murphy, his hand on Ravenell’s shoulder, said at the time. Murphy said in 2005: “If this were a sports league and we were keeping score, Ken Ravenell would have been the MVP every year for the past 10 years.”
In 2007, Murphy persuaded Ravenell to join his firm as a partner. He declined to comment for this article.
While his talent was evident, Ravenell’s tactics raised alarms among some colleagues.
Mirriam Seddiq, who worked under Ravenell at the Schulman firm for a year, said he “worked harder than any human being on earth.” But she “hated how he ran his shop” within the firm: “I was uncomfortable with how we did certain things; we got a little too involved in how we worked with clients.”
She was surprised that Ravenell had long-term clients.
“Most of these firms don’t do street crime, because there’s no longevity in it — you don’t have repeat customers,” she said. “But they had people on the rolls, so to speak.”
Retired attorney Richard C.B. Woods said when Ravenell referred clients to him, he sought more than a standard 10% fee. Without Ravenell getting involved in the cases, Woods said the suggestion of paying more made him uncomfortable. He walked away from the relationship, but sent Ravenell a 1099 form documenting for federal taxes the referral fees that had been paid.
“He said, ‘This is bulls---, I’m not accepting this,’” Woods recalled. “I said, ‘You can return it all you want, but we’re filing with the IRS.’ And we did.”
Ravenell’s attorney, Lucius Outlaw, said: “Lawyers differ on tactics and approaches all the time. But within the legal profession, there really is no disagreement about Ken Ravenell and his reputation — that he is a great, ethical and hardworking attorney who is dedicated to his clients and who is well respected in the legal profession nationwide.”
He said Ravenell has made every appropriate tax disclosure regarding his earnings as an attorney.
Michael Kaminkow, who hired Ravenell at the Schulman firm and is now retired, said he never saw Ravenell do anything inappropriate.
Ravenell has no disciplinary history with the state attorney grievance commission.
Federal prosecutors accuse him of running interference and laundering money for Byrd, who Ravenell first represented in 1994 when he was charged with being part of a group that executed a man during a marijuana robbery in Northeast Baltimore. Byrd ended up getting only five years for a separate drug and gun possession case.
Ravenell remained in contact with Byrd, who owned clothing stores at Mondawmin and Security Square malls. Byrd became a nightclub and branding impresario, hosting events with musicians like P. Diddy and athletes who included LeBron James. When the Super Lawyers rating service named Ravenell to its list in 2011, Murphy threw him a party. Byrd was there, according to two other attendees.
During that time, Byrd was trafficking marijuana around the country by the truckload. Federal investigators, as well as authorities in multiple states, tracked Byrd for years before charging him and several co-conspirators in 2014.
“This case has had a long and tumultuous history,” Assistant U.S. Attorney James Warwick said at Byrd’s sentencing in 2017. “It’s one of the largest drug organizations I have been involved with in terms of investigating and prosecuting.”
But after a 2014 raid by the IRS and the Drug Enforcement Administration on the Murphy firm in downtown Baltimore, Ravenell had to drop out of representing Byrd and left the firm.
It’s not clear why prosecutors moved forward with charges five years later, in 2019, against Ravenell. The indictment alleges Ravenell conspired with Byrd’s crew between 2009 and 2014, advising them on how to avoid law enforcement and laundering drug money through his law firm’s bank accounts.
He faces life in prison on the drug charges alone.
In 2017, two months after Byrd’s sentencing, Treem reached out to Byrd, ostensibly on Ravenell’s behalf, according to court documents. Treem, along with private investigator Sean Gordon, traveled to a jail in Phoenix to meet Byrd. Their conversation was surreptitiously recorded by the government.
According to transcripts, Byrd told Treem that Ravenell was involved in his operation, and Byrd said he wanted a large sum of money from a casino investment with Murphy and his son returned to him.
Treem was charged in late 2020 with obstruction of justice in connection with a letter he sent to Bennett, the federal judge. Prosecutors say he reported that Byrd was attempting to blackmail Ravenell, but mischaracterized Byrd’s comments about Ravenell’s involvement in illegal activities.
The possibility of trouble for Ravenell had hung in the air for years after the raid on the law office, but the charges against Treem shocked many in the legal community. His firm, Brown, Goldstein & Levy, has stood by him and he remains a partner.
Kaminkow said that when he worked with Treem, the lawyer was the “ethical conscience of our office.” He said the charges against Treem are “a serious stretch.”
Several months of wrangling leading up to the trial has concerned whether jurors, as part of determining whether the defendants’ conduct was criminal, will hear from experts for the prosecution and defense regarding how attorneys should conduct themselves.
Ravenell, meanwhile, has not stepped foot in a federal courtroom since the 2014 raid, but he has continued to take on high-profile criminal and civil cases. He also partners with the ACLU, successfully representing activist Kwame Rose after he was arrested at a protest, and in an ongoing civil case brought over the 2018 death of Anton Black, a 19-year-old who died at the hands of police on the Eastern Shore.
Attorney Landon White is working with Ravenell on a civil suit brought in state court on behalf of the family of Korryn Gaines, who was fatally shot in 2016 by a Baltimore County police officer. He said Ravenell never spoke of his ongoing troubles as they worked on the lawsuit.
“When you’re a prizefighter, you don’t complain about your wars,” White said. “If you do that, you’re going to lose sight of the prize.”