A former Baltimore defense attorney convicted of conspiring with his clients to commit money laundering told the Fourth Circuit at a hearing Wednesday that there was a “significant risk” that he would be convicted of noncriminal conduct.
The court “usurped the role of the jury” in treating the application of the statute of limitations to facts as a matter of law, and made a clear error by not providing the jury with the ability to evaluate a safe harbor provision, Kenneth Ravenell’s attorney told judges during the hearing dispute Wednesday.
The government must prove that the alleged conspiracy continued into the statute of limitations, Ravenell said.
The administration faced aggressive questioning from Chief Justice Roger L. Gregory, who said the case was particularly important given its implications for individuals’ right to counsel: “How do you get a fair trial when the jury doesn’t know what it is?” Statute dependent restrictions?”
Ravenell was convicted in December 2021 on a single count of conspiracy to launder money for two unrelated clients, Richard Byrd and Leonaldo Harris. Byrd pleaded guilty to running a large-scale drug distribution operation in 2016, alleging that Ravenell advised him to avoid prosecution and helped him launder criminal proceeds.
Harris also pleaded guilty to unrelated federal narcotics offenses in 2016 after detaining Ravenell.
During the trial, the government asked the jury to convict Ravenell only of money laundering from Harris, but Ravenell says payments by Harris were exempt under the safe haven criminal provision for attorneys’ fees paid by a client to a defense attorney. Because the court did not instruct the jury on the definition of a “money transaction,” which excludes attorneys’ fees, the court effectively allowed the jury to convict him of lawful conduct, he said.
Even if the payments were unlawful, Ravenell argued that the government had to prove the alleged conspiracy continued into the applicable statute of limitations. But the jury was not briefed on the statute of limitations either.
The government responded that it did not need to provide any of Ravenell’s proposed statute of limitations instructions, which it said were legally incorrect.
It also said the parties agreed that the safe harbor order was not necessary. Safe haven is not an element of the criminal offense and Ravenell’s conduct did not fall under the protection of Fourth Circuit law, according to the government.
“This was the responsibility of the defendants, and they botched it,” Leo J. Wise, a United States assistant prosecutor for the District of Maryland, told the panel.
The government also claimed that because a third party collected the money and paid it to Ravenell at Harris’s request, it fell outside safe haven.
David M. Zornow of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP called this “nonsense”.
Harris was incarcerated at the time, so his girlfriend collected money Harris owed to pay Ravenell on his behalf, he argued. “If that isn’t safe haven, I’m not sure what could be.”
Zornow also disputes whether Ravenell’s defense attorney “agreed” that the safe harbor order was not necessary, calling it an unintentional error.
He also said the magistrate did not rule that he could not pronounce a statute of limitations because the proposed instruction was wrong, but that it was a question of law for the court and he would take it after the verdict if necessary.
Justices Toby J. Heytens and J. Harvie Wilkinson III also served on the panel.
Ravenell was also represented by Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP.
The case is US v. Ravenell, 4th Cir., No. 22-04369, docket number 1/11/23.