In four decades of practicing law at the highest level in Baltimore and beyond, attorney Kenneth Ravenell was known for his eloquent and convincing delivery in the courtroom.
But standing before a federal judge Wednesday for sentencing on a money laundering conviction, the 63-year-old counselor said little. Though he maintains his innocence and plans to appeal, he’d heard Judge Liam O’Grady say the evidence was overwhelming and that he got off easy when the jury acquitted him on other more significant charges of racketeering and drug conspiracy.
“I’ll simply say, judge, I’ve heard what you said,” Ravenell told the judge. “Obviously, I disagree.”
The sentencing hearing capped a case that has spanned more than a decade, first with a federal investigation into a cross-country drug trafficking organization headed by a client of Ravenell, and which later, in 2014, led to a raid on Ravenell’s law office.
Charges were not brought against the attorney until 2019, with federal prosecutors saying he “abused his position as a member of the Bar of Maryland to break the law, treating his firm’s escrow account like a dirty bank for a coast-to-coast drug distribution organization for years and taking drug money for doing so.”
“Kenneth Ravenell is not a great lawyer. He is a corrupt lawyer. That is what the evidence at trial showed,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Wise said Wednesday.
O’Grady rejected a request to let Ravenell remain free pending an expected appeal. But he allowed him to delay his reporting date until October.
The star witness at the trial was Richard Byrd, Ravenell’s former client, who testified that Ravenell helped him avoid detection from law enforcement, sought to silence potential government cooperators and moved drug money through his law firm. Other former clients and members of Byrd’s operation testified as well, and prosecutors had ledgers showing large amounts of what Byrd said was drug money passing through the Murphy Firm, where Ravenell worked at the time.
Ravenell’s attorneys said that despite accusing Ravenell of raking in drug money, prosecutors couldn’t account for it.
“To this day, we don’t know how did Mr. Ravenell profit, and to what amount?” defense attorney Lucius T. Outlaw said Wednesday.
The defense said the government relentlessly went after Ravenell and enlisted Byrd, who would say anything to reduce his own 26-year prison sentence. Records show Byrd was released from prison following the trial, after serving about seven years.
The defense also contended that Byrd had legitimate businesses and Ravenell did not know money he was receiving was drug money. At sentencing, they argued that by acquitting Ravenell of racketeering, narcotics and obstruction charges, they must have rejected Byrd’s testimony entirely.
O’Grady, who earlier rejected two requests for a new trial, said he believed the evidence was sufficient for conviction on every count.
Byrd wore a hidden camera during a meeting with Ravenell’s previous attorney, Joshua Treem, and a private investigator, where he repeatedly demanded that they help him recoup some investment funds he believed he was owed. O’Grady said it was “my belief, pure speculation” that jurors were “so disturbed” by the video “that the discounted almost all of” what Byrd had to say.
Treem and investigator Sean Gordon were both acquitted at trial.
Ravenell grew up one of 11 children raised on a sharecropping farm in South Carolina, and rose to become one of the most prominent trial attorneys in the area. He once argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. In addition to handling high-profile criminal cases, Ravenell was also involved in bringing a civil case on behalf of the daughter of Korryn Gaines, who was shot and killed by a Baltimore County police officer, and was involved in a suit brought by the family of Anton Black, killed by an officer on the Eastern Shore. He has been active in his church, given back to his alma mater and mentored youth, supporters told O’Grady.
Ravenell has continued to handle cases as an attorney in the state courts even after his conviction, since the Court of Appeals has not taken up a move by the Attorney Grievance Commission to suspend his law license. “He’s been in court preparing cases for clients, to protect their freedom, while his is in the balance,” said friend and attorney Randall Craig.
Many of Ravenell’s legal colleagues lined up to support him, even after his conviction, saying the accusations are out of step with the man and lawyer they know. Two retired judges and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland were among them.
In his brief comments to the judge at the sentencing hearing, Ravenell said: “I wish you knew me” like those who supported him know him.
Prosecutors described that dichotomy as an “aggravating factor.”
“Unlike the defendants that typically appear before this court, the defendant was, by the accounts of numerous character witnesses he called in his defense, highly successful, both professional and financially,” they wrote. “Simply put, what the testimony of those witnesses demonstrate is that the defendant lived a double life. In Jekyll and Hyde like fashion, the defendant presented one version of himself to his colleagues, and another to his clients like Richard Byrd.”
The defense sought supervised probation instead of incarceration. They said the government’s efforts had sent a chill through the area legal community, and that Ravenell would likely lose his law license. A deterrent message had been “fully communicated,” Outlaw said.
Several prominent attorneys have slammed the U.S. Attorney’s Office for bringing the case against Treem, and were shocked by the decision to pore through lawyers’ files as part of their investigation.
In his remarks Wednesday, Wise, the prosecutor, spoke of how there is little oversight of what attorneys do with their clients. He said it was unclear whether Ravenell’s conduct was “an outlier, or the tip of the iceberg” in the legal community.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has two other cases involving high-profile lawyers, which have also drawn pushback. They are bringing extortion charges against Stephen L. Snyder, long one of the most successful plaintiffs’ attorneys in the state. The Banner reported Tuesday on a secret fight over subpoenas for attorney work product and an ongoing criminal investigation into the alleged destruction of a document in that case.
And trial is set for the fall for Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who is facing perjury charges related to early withdrawals from her retirement account, as well as the purchase of Florida properties.