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Defense teams call in heavy hitters as character witnesses at Ravenell trial

Two former Baltimore city state’s attorneys and three former judges testified as character witnesses Friday in the closely watched criminal trial against two prominent defense lawyers accused of federal crimes.

The attorneys, Kenneth W. Ravenell and Joshua R. Treem, have been on trial for two weeks in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. Also on trial is Sean F. Gordon, a defense investigator who had worked with Ravenell.

The three men called on some of the biggest names in Maryland’s legal community Friday as they began presenting their defenses. The government rested its case shortly after 10 a.m.

Ravenell called Andre M. Davis, the former Baltimore city solicitor and U.S. Circuit Court judge, and Joseph Murphy, a former Maryland Court of Appeals judge, as character witnesses.

Davis noted that Ravenell once attended the 4th Circuit Judicial Conference, an event that lawyers can only attend with an invitation from a federal judge.

“My opinion is that Mr. Ravenell is a person of unquestioned good character,” Davis said. “He is professional in every sense of the word.”

Ravenell’s character has, however, been a central question at his trial. The government alleges that he was a longtime consigliere to a marijuana trafficking ring who used his legal expertise to shield the organization from law enforcement and launder drug money.

He faces the most serious charges, including racketeering, drug and money laundering conspiracy.

Treem and Gordon both face obstruction of justice charges related to what they say were their efforts to defend Ravenell during the federal investigation.

The character witnesses highlighted the unusual nature of Ravenell’s trial, which has pitted federal prosecutors against widely respected attorneys — as defendants, rather than legal adversaries — and pried into areas of criminal defense practice rarely seen by the public.

Treem and Gordon are accused of interviewing Richard Byrd, a key prosecution cooperator, in an effort to “take him off the board,” or ruin his credibility so that his testimony could be impeached if the government called him as a witness.

Byrd, who ran the drug trafficking ring, testified last week that Ravenell knowingly accepted payments in drug money, laundered the money through his then-law firm and helped the traffickers evade law enforcement.

In a 2017 meeting with Treem and Gordon, Byrd at first agreed with a list of exculpatory statements about Ravenell that Treem had prepared. But by the next day, Byrd changed his story and said that Ravenell was in on the drug trafficking operation. Byrd recorded the meeting using a pair of specially equipped eyeglasses provided by federal investigators.

Prosecutors say Treem and Gordon intentionally left out the incriminating statements that Byrd made in an affidavit and a letter produced after the meeting.

In court on Friday, Treem called former Baltimore city state’s attorneys Stuart Simms and Gregg Bernstein as character witnesses.

“He has a reputation of being a lawyer’s lawyer,” Bernstein said in court. “His reputation in the community is one of the greatest respect.”

Treem may take the witness stand on Monday, his lawyer said.

Gordon called James Wyda, the federal public defender for the district of Maryland, and Shawn Armbrust, the executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, who both said Gordon is well-regarded and able to talk to anyone in his role as a defense investigator.

Treem and Gordon’s lawyers also raised concerns that the prosecution’s case was an effort to punish legitimate criminal defense work.

“What every lawyer on this side of the courtroom is dying to know, maybe I’d say scared to know, … What is it that Josh Treem did that a defense lawyer is prohibited from doing at risk of being accused of obstruction of justice?”asked Daniel Goldstein, who is representing Treem.

“Preparing an affidavit that memorializes the favorable facts from an interview is proper attorney conduct,” Goldstein said.

Gordon’s attorneys agreed.

“One of the troubling aspects of this case, from our perspective, is that the conduct that is at issue by Mr. Gordon involves conduct that is squarely within the job description of defense investigators,” said Geremy Kamens.

Those arguments came as the defense teams argued for judgments of acquittal late Friday morning. Senior U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady denied the requests.